Research team warns of mineral supply constraints as demand increases for green technologies (Update)

March 16, 2017, University of Delaware
Minerals demand requires global approach
Exploration is not keeping up with demand. Credit: University of Queensland

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.

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.

Supply and demand

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.

"Countries where minerals are likely to be found may have poor governance, making it higher risk for supply. But production from these countries will be needed to meet global demand. We need to be thinking about this," Ali said.

Few alternatives, difficult to recycle

Then there is the common consumer misconception that we can just use something else. For many mineral uses, there are no alternatives. There are few commercially viable replacement minerals for many applications of copper wiring, for example.

The same may be true for technology metals that could become essential in green technologies—like neodymium, terbium or iridium. These minerals are only needed in small quantities, but they are indispensable to making the technology work, meaning that while the scale seems small, the value is immense.

Environmental costs and materials recycling options need to be considered, too.

Metals and carbon fiber used in the manufacture of aircraft or automobiles are often thought to have less environmental impact because they are light, but Ali explained that the manufacturing of carbon fibers currently is highly petroleum based.

"Because they are lighter, people think they are somehow greener, but they aren't and they are difficult, if not impossible, to recycle," he said.

Ali and his colleagues hope that this paper is the first step toward an intergovernmental mechanism or other solution that can empower nations to plan for mineral scarcity as both the public and private sector are mineral dependent.

The research team contends that positive strides can be made quickly through expansion of developing organizations, such as the United Nation's International Resource Panel or the Canadian-led Intergovernmental Panel on Mining Metals and Sustainable Development.

Longer term solutions will require greater transparency among nations, and could include global sharing of geological data and the creation of mechanisms to protect mineral deposit 'finds' much like we protect intellectual property.

"It's about managing the flow of resources from the ground to product to consumer to recycling," Ali said.

The bottom line

The hard truth, though, is that if nothing changes shrinking supply naturally will lead to rising prices. It also could lead to serious global challenges if essential resources that people have been so dependent on collapse.

Take the infrastructure around renewable energy technologies, such as wind turbines. Right now, the technology is new, but what if resources dry up for new production or repair of existing technology? A bottleneck in terms of material production could create a bottleneck in terms of energy production too.

Even nuclear power, often considered a universal cure for global energy woes, is not immune to mineral scarcity. In fact, all nuclear reactors today require uranium—a metal that must be mined—in order to function.

"People have been so concerned about climate change that it's created a real movement around it. We don't see this around resource use and recovery, even though it is much closer to us on a daily basis," Ali said.

Explore further: Will growth in low-carbon technologies lead to metals scarcity?

More information: Saleem H. Ali et al. Mineral supply for sustainable development requires resource governance, Nature (2017). DOI: 10.1038/nature21359

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37 comments

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dirk_bruere
not rated yet Mar 16, 2017
Indium was one of those elements, but it looks like it will be replaced with graphene
antialias_physorg
3.4 / 5 (5) Mar 16, 2017
Exactly. There's all kinds of replacement tech ready - or very nearly so - for market (from niobium/dysprosium replacements in electric motors/generators to silicon replacement via perovskite in solar cells to graphene/nanotubes for copper to various battery designs that do not use lithium.

Thinking about ore availability is certainly a good idea, but linearly extrapolating from today's need to tomorrown's demand seems to not reflect these developments.
gkam
1 / 5 (5) Mar 16, 2017
Yes, material substitution will help tremendously, and hurt the claims of the deniers and the fossil folks regarding materials. I guess they never heard of recycling.
SiaoX
5 / 5 (1) Mar 16, 2017
there's all kinds of replacement tech ready - or very nearly so - for market
Renewable energy needs copper, steel, aluminium and concrete, which simply have no cheaper replacement. According to this study, if the contribution from wind turbines and solar energy to global energy production is to rise from the current 400 TWh to 12,000 TWh in 2035 and 25,000 TWh in 2050 (as projected by the World Wide Fund for Nature), about 3,200 million tonnes of steel, 310 million tonnes of aluminium and 40 million tonnes of copper will be required to build the latest generations of wind and solar facilities. This corresponds to a 5 to 18% annual increase in the global production of these metals for the next 40 years. And 25,000 TWh is still just one sixth of the total world energy consumption. Can you multiply?
SiaoX
3 / 5 (2) Mar 16, 2017
Indium was one of those elements, but it looks like it will be replaced with graphene.. Because they are lighter, people think they are somehow greener, but they aren't and they are difficult, if not impossible, to recycle
The cost of material isn't problem, the problem is the production cost. The general criterion of savings is the cost. If you have electromobile which costs you three times more than the classical car during its life time, then you're still three-times more demanding to your carbon footprint and life environment. The fossil fuels have made up at least 83% of U.S. fuel mix since 1900. The 83% of electricity consumed by your electromobile still comes from fossil sources and the car is still twice-time as expensive as the gasoline car.
SiaoX
1.8 / 5 (5) Mar 16, 2017
The world numbers are even worse than that. Because the application of renewables increases the net demand for fossil energy on background, its share didn't actually decrease during last 25 years. But one half of tropical forests disappeared during this period just in the name of the biofuels: we actually burned these forests for fuel.
Global energy use by source.
gkam
2.1 / 5 (7) Mar 16, 2017
"The 83% of electricity consumed by your electromobile still comes from fossil sources and the car is still twice-time as expensive as the gasoline car."

Nope. My PV produces sufficient power for both house and car. It offsets a grid which is powered by wind, hyrdro, geothermal, and other renewable technologies, along with soon-to-be closed nukes, and efficient and clean gas.

And manufacturing an electric motor is much simpler than machining an ICE.
gkam
1.7 / 5 (6) Mar 16, 2017
"Because the application of renewables increases the net demand for fossil energy on background, . . "
--------------------------------------------------
Nope.

My PV and EV reduced society's need for fossil-based power generation and petroleum extraction, refining, and conversion to CO2.
SiaoX
3 / 5 (2) Mar 16, 2017
Nope. My PV produces sufficient power for both house and car
I can understand you feel proud of your investments and obtained energetic independence - but are you really trying to seriously argue the global statistics with your private personal experience?
ChibaCity
4 / 5 (4) Mar 16, 2017
Can you multiply?


SiaoX, you have good arguments, but why should I listen to anything you say, or engage with you at all, if you attack, ad hominem? It detracts greatly from your arguments.
ChibaCity
3 / 5 (2) Mar 16, 2017
My experience in researching energy consumption showed me that we often don't know how much a given product or process uses, from mining of ore to final delivery. My guess is that this is because we've never really had to answer this question; we've been able to increase energy consumption at exponential rates. Now, however, we are approaching some limits, both in terms of raw resources (which are not infinitely substitutable, as some aver), and in terms of pollution. Regarding the latter, to paraphrase Barry Commoner, 'everything must go somewhere'. We can reuse, reduce, and recycle -- but there are still consequences, thermodynamic, on habitats, and on species diversity. We have some difficult choices to make, and there will be trade-offs.
gkam
2.1 / 5 (7) Mar 16, 2017
"I can understand you feel proud of your investments and obtained energetic independence - but are you really trying to seriously argue the global statistics with your private personal experience?"
------------------------------------

Pride? I did nothing special, which is the entire point: It is available to YOU, too, and may be more economic than you think.

If you can integrate technologies, such as PV and EV, wind, water, or whatever matches your site-specifics, you start gaining synergy.
gkam
1.7 / 5 (6) Mar 16, 2017
"My experience in researching energy consumption showed me that we often don't know how much a given product or process uses, . . . "
--------------------------------------

Oh, I promise we know. We can just get away with it. But after the First Oil Embargo we had to wring all waste out of our processes and find efficiencies every place we could. That information is still tracked, because it reflects on profitability.

It is just now we are finding better ways to handle the more recalcitrant problems.
SiaoX
2 / 5 (4) Mar 16, 2017
if you attack, ad hominem?
Wasn't it rhetorical question provoking for thinking instead? BTW You shouldn't be so sensitive, Captain Stumpy just called me "suffering with syndrome of being a f*cking pseudoscience troll" and he was even upvoted for it - so I presume, it's welcomed attitude here.

But I really think, that the people pushing "renewables" don't want to calculate in the name of their ideology. This ideology provides research and job places for some of them - but in its consequences it makes all the rest poorer.
SiaoX
3 / 5 (2) Mar 16, 2017
It is available to YOU, too, and may be more economic than you think.
Why the poor countries don't engage more in solar energy after then, if they could achieve savings? Because they have no money for governmental subsidizes of solar energy?
SiaoX
1 / 5 (2) Mar 16, 2017
The plan, named "America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again," would increase defense spending by $54 billion and then offset that by stripping money from more than 18 other agencies. Department of Energy Office of Science budget is cut by $900 million in new budget proposal Well, maybe Trump is wiser, than he looks at the first (or even 2nd) sight and maybe he is even wiser than the whole bunch of scientific nerds and environmental experts.
gkam
1.8 / 5 (5) Mar 16, 2017
You are on a science site, not for white supremacy or AGW Deniers, or whatever your identity.

And we have little defense spending, . . it is mostly offense.
SiaoX
1 / 5 (2) Mar 16, 2017
It could be (and it was) way worse. But if the USA would invest into cold fusion research in time, then today would be oil even cheaper and Russians and Islamists even weaker: no need to invest into arm race again. Every fun comes at its own cost, this time it was "renewables" fun. The problem of USA (and civilized world in general) is the high price of oil: it transfers money (and thus power) into an uncivilized parts.
Eikka
3 / 5 (2) Mar 16, 2017
SiaoX, you have good arguments, but why should I listen to anything you say, or engage with you at all, if you attack, ad hominem? It detracts greatly from your arguments.


The stupidest counterpoint man ever invented is: "I reject what appears to be true because you offend me".

Below that is already insanity.
Uncle Ira
4 / 5 (4) Mar 16, 2017
You are on a science site, not for white supremacy


@ glam-Skippy. Zephir-Skippy is no white supremacist, I've known him for years. He's got some odd-ball ideas, but he is not a bigot or a bad person.
gkam
Mar 16, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Uncle Ira
4 / 5 (4) Mar 16, 2017
I thought Zephir was somebody else here.

How many is he?


He gets banned and deleted about every other month or so. Then he'll be back with a new account & name. He's honest about it. He doesn't try to pretend it's not him or anything like that. Ask anybody who has been round for awhile, he's Zeph and nobody else is quite like him.

Most peoples get really mad with him all the time, because he has a couple of pet "theories" he's all the time pushing,,,, AWT (Aether Wave Theory),,,,,, and cold fusion,,,,, and dense vacuums with ripples and electron ducks,,,,,,, and the money not getting spent on replicating failed experiments and such like.

But over the years I have become really fond of him. He is unique and means no real harm.
gkam
Mar 16, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Ralph
3 / 5 (2) Mar 17, 2017
I just don't see any way our massive-scale exploitation of the planet could be made sustainable. We face increasing populations, multiplied by increasingly powerful extraction techniques, multiplied by increasing demands to replicate mineral-based high-technology devices by the billions. It is not a matter of if, but only of when we hit the limits of that cycle. And then what?
humy
3 / 5 (2) Mar 17, 2017
there's all kinds of replacement tech ready - or very nearly so - for market
Renewable energy needs copper, steel, aluminium and concrete, which simply have no cheaper replacement.

SiaoX

False. Perhaps we sometimes have "no cheaper replacement" right NOW but we will do (and SOON i.e. not too far into the future) because NEW cheaper replacements can be researched and developed and there is no insurmountably barrier for doing so, it is just a matter of WHEN.

Already we are seeing the new development of ever cheaper grapheme to replace copper, aluminum etc. And they are finding cheaper and cheaper ways of manufacturing the new grapheme and carbon fibers and composites etc all the time and thus it is OBVIOUS that all these materials will be eventually replaced by much cheaper manufactured materials. Most if not all steal will surely eventually be replaced by carbon fiber composites and/or silicon nitride both of which are stronger and lighter than steal etc
antialias_physorg
3.7 / 5 (3) Mar 17, 2017
But over the years I have become really fond of him. He is unique and means no real harm.

I guess by confining him here we're partially responsible for preventing him from doing any harm. Most importantly we're preventing him from bothering any scientists and stealing their time with his crazy rantings.
dbastianello
not rated yet Mar 17, 2017
Maybe there would be less of a concern if we would reward companies which allow people to upgrade their electronics rather than toss them for "recycling". AMD recently (and has always) released a CPU (Ryzen) where they have committed to keeping their socket for 4 years which would extend the life of all components (except the CPU of course) for more than the usual cycle of 3 year upgrade. You buy it now and upgrade the CPU three years from now and using it for another 3 years thus doubling the life span of a home computer.

We like to talk green this and green that but we don't put our money where our mouth is, why not impose (or incentives) upon mobile manufacturers to support phones for 3 years minimum with mandated software updates every 6 months... it's not impossible plus it would allow for security updates to be maintained. This would also imply that telecom companies would have incentives for not forcing HW upgrades on their subscribers.
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (2) Mar 17, 2017
You buy it now and upgrade the CPU three years from now

...if the socket architecture remains the same.
Eikka
3 / 5 (2) Mar 17, 2017
Perhaps we sometimes have "no cheaper replacement" right NOW but we will do (and SOON i.e. not too far into the future)


That -may- be true, but present decisions and action should not be based on gambling on futures that are by no means certain.

thus it is OBVIOUS that all these materials will be eventually replaced by much cheaper manufactured materials


What is obvious is the need for these materials, but that does not mean they will obviously come about. We have to be extra careful not to make the wish-will fallacy of thinking that something must be true because we would prefer that outcome.

Consider, what if we didn't invent a good cheap replacement for steel and concrete and glass in the next 50 years? Does it make sense to build "green" technologies that only actually become green 50 years hence?

It's kinda like saying, "Well I don't mind becoming blind because they'll invent a way to heal it". Perhaps, but in your lifetime?
cortezz
3 / 5 (2) Mar 17, 2017
"The 83% of electricity consumed by your electromobile still comes from fossil sources and the car is still twice-time as expensive as the gasoline car."

Nope. My PV produces sufficient power for both house and car. It offsets a grid which is powered by wind, hyrdro, geothermal, and other renewable technologies, along with soon-to-be closed nukes, and efficient and clean gas.

That you can do it does not mean that everyone is as lucky. I did some calculations one day that here in Finland it takes 66 years to pay back for instalment of solar panels that produce around 1500 kwh per year. That is if all produced electricity is sold at market price. Electricity is cheap atm but it will be in the future too because we have two nuclear power plants building. I don't think the panels last that long.

Cold winter also cuts about 1/3 of electric cars' range.
antialias_physorg
2.3 / 5 (3) Mar 17, 2017
did some calculations one day that here in Finland it takes 66 years to pay back for instalment of solar panels

I dunno. Those on my dad's roof paid for themselves in 12. And they are after 16 years they are still going strong (about 95% output compared to initial production - which is a bit uncertain as variability between years isn't factored in.)...and 16 years ago those panels were really expensive. Wherever you look the amortisation time is around 10 years. Solar installation last that long easily (probably double that, easily). I.e. by the end of its lifetime you'll have made double as much money as it cost you to put them up.
dbastianello
not rated yet Mar 17, 2017
@antialias_physorg

Agreed but I have had AMD systems for years and have always been able to upgrade the CPU at least once more than 2 years after buying the motherboard. My current system and BTW I am a power user, I have upgraded twice, started with a quad core than a 6 core and currently an 8 core. What did I do with my older processors, built cheap systems for my HTPC and one for my parents. Last christmas with the extra parts I had laying around (8GB RAM, 6Core AMD and motherboard, and HDD) I built a system for my in-laws. All stuff laying around they are happy no new electronics were used other than buying a power supply and DVD ROM. Although new stuff was bought there is much less bought thus less electronics manufacturing poisons and carbon footprint for it. Now all these parts will be in use of over 10 years now. 4 systems built from parts I bought up to 10 years ago, that is what should be done rather than play the 3 year cycle.
dbastianello
not rated yet Mar 17, 2017
@antialias_physorg

Also AMD has committed to keeping the AM4 socket for 4 years, PCWorld has an article with the following title

"AMD says its Zen CPU architecture is expected to last four years"

If you buy it now you will have a system for several years to come.
antialias_physorg
1 / 5 (1) Mar 17, 2017
You always have to look into what kind of user are you dealing with. Developer? Gamer? Regular user?

Currently the 'regular user' doesn't need upgrades at all. A machine that is 5 years old will be just fine for any and all surfing needs (and will probably be so for the next five). And while the gamers and developers made up the bulk in the early years this is no longer the case.

Also the processor isn't the critical component any longer that it used to be. For the gamer/developer the graphics card and RAM are much more important (and RAM types are changing every few years...as well as graphic card specs and power needs which may require exchanging other components)

I agree that you can keep systems alive a lot longer by doing component swapping (HD->SSD, better graphics card, more RAM, ... ) but that's really only an issue for us nerds.
cortezz
1 / 5 (1) Mar 17, 2017
did some calculations one day that here in Finland it takes 66 years to pay back for instalment of solar panels

I dunno. Those on my dad's roof paid for themselves in 12. And they are after 16 years they are still going strong (about 95% output compared to initial production - which is a bit uncertain as variability between years isn't factored in.)...and 16 years ago those panels were really expensive.

I did only some fast calculations. Looked the price of the installation + panels from one providers' site that also gave estimate of their output based on postcode area. Then compared the annual production with current north pool market price. I'm sure that there are cheaper options availabe too and you can always install them yourself.
dbastianello
not rated yet Mar 17, 2017
It shouldn't be an issue for us nerds though, semiconductor manufacturing is highly toxic and has a large carbon footprint so it is an issue for all.

Although you are right about the 5 year old PC but I can't totally agree, have you checked how many scripts run when you load a web page these days... 100 + minimum. Also your as you put it "regular" user will not buy the $1200 to $1500 system that will still be descent 5 years from now, they buy the $300 to $600 one that is barely capable today never mind 5 years from now.

I'm buying a Ryzen system fairly high end (if my motherboard ever arrives) and that will keep me going easily into mid 2020's, figuring around 2023-2024 is when I will be passing it down to my wife which will be passing my current system down to my son which will be passing his soon be laptop to my daughter...
Zzzzzzzz
not rated yet Mar 17, 2017
Perhaps we sometimes have "no cheaper replacement" right NOW but we will do (and SOON i.e. not too far into the future)


That -may- be true, but present decisions and action should not be based on gambling on futures that are by no means certain.


Now you're believing in "certain" futures? Good luck with that........

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