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Warning of shortage of essential minerals for laptops, cell phones

Staff Writer |
An international team of researchers, led by the University of Delaware's Saleem Ali, says global resource governance and sharing of geoscience data is needed to address challenges facing future mineral supply.

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Specifically of concern are a range of technology minerals, which are an essential ingredient in everything from laptops and cell phones to hybrid or electric cars to solar panels and copper wiring for homes. However, base metals like copper are also a matter of immense concern.

The research team, which included experts from academic, government and industrial institutions across five continents, the U.S., Europe, South Africa, Australia and South America, reported their findings today in a peer-reviewed paper in Nature.

"There are treaties on climate change, biodiversity, migratory species and even waste management of organic chemicals, but there is no international mechanism to govern how mineral supply should be coordinated," said Ali, the paper's lead author and Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and Environment at UD.

The researchers reviewed data and demand forecasts on the sustainability of global mineral supplies in coming decades. The study showed that mining exploration is not keeping up with future demand for minerals and recycling in and of itself would not be able to meet the demand either.

At the same time, transitioning to a low carbon society will require vast amounts of metals and minerals to manufacture clean technologies and the researchers say society is not equipped to meet the additional needs for these raw materials.

According to the research team, international coordination is needed on where to focus exploration investment efforts, what kind of minerals are likely to be found in different locations and hence, what kind of bilateral agreements are needed between various countries.

Global population numbers are expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, the target date for the United Nations sustainable development goals, meaning even more consumers in the marketplace.

The largest percentage of investment in a mineral for exploration is in gold, which although highly profitable, is largely used for jewelry.

Major commodity metals like iron ore, copper and gold (and other precious metals) are sold on a global market the way that oil is sold. Rare earth metals and other technology minerals, however, are sold through individual dealers and prices can vary remarkably.

For goods like clothing, cosmetics or electronics, price can easily trigger changes in supply. This is not possible with mineral supply, however, because the time horizon for developing a rare earth mineral deposit from exploration and discovery to mining is 10-15 years.

For instance, the last major deposit for copper was discovered in Mongolia 15 years ago and only began producing in fall 2016, creating huge supply challenges.

Added to this, only 10 percent of early exploration efforts actually lead to a minable deposit.

Most discoveries are either not economically viable to mine or companies run into land use or zoning problems due to geopolitical challenges.

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