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Minerals at Risk and for Emerging Technologies

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Project summary:

Prices of minerals and metals increased two- to three-fold from 2004 up to the financial crisis in the Fall of 2008 due to rapidly increasing demand from China and India.   Prices have since recovered significantly as China has intensified purchases of minerals and the global economy has begun to recover. Mineral suppliers are not able to expand output, through discovery and development of new mines and expansion of existing mines, at a rate that can satisfy demand. Likewise, new technologies for increasing energy efficiency, sequestering and reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and for improving telecommunications and computer networks will require extensive use of certain minerals and metals, generally recovered as byproducts of other mineral production, at rates well above traditional levels of supply. Examples include lithium for a new generation of hybrid car batteries and tellurium for solar power cells. With the variety of new technologies being pursued, investors and consumers need to be aware of any potential short- and long-term impediments to the supply of necessary mineral raw materials. In the case of lithium, rising lithium prices would, over the long run, signal to the market the relative scarcity of lithium, but this process could be shortcut by a sober assessment of known resources and prospects for adding to those resources - an assessment that might lead to a shift to a battery technology that uses more abundant resources.

Many minerals used for emerging technologies, including lithium and tellurium, have not been included in most or all mineral resource assessments conducted to date, including national and global assessments. Some minerals, such as those for lithium, which are obtained from mines where lithium is the primary product, can be assessed using the conventional USGS methodologies. Rare metals, like tellurium, cadmium, and indium, are recovered as byproducts from the smelting and refining of copper and zinc ores. Not only do we lack methods for assessing resources for these trace metals, but we also lack basic data on their occurrence in commonly mined ores and on future alternative sources. Some industrial minerals are required for these new technologies, such as olivine for sequestration of carbon dioxide. The extent and quality of domestic sources of these minerals are little known, as are the presence of trace impurities which may have implications for quality, performance, and environmental impacts. Almost all industrial minerals face increasing standards for performance, purity, and environmental mitigation. There are trace impurities in these minerals, such as fluorine in clay, which are often unexpected and pose environmental problems. Industrial minerals have historically been studies for their physical properties. The presence and role of trace impurities, and geological explanations of why such impurities are present and how they can be predicted, are issues not yet addressed for many important industrial minerals.

Major objectives of the project:

The precursor project to this project, titled Planning for the Investigation of Scarce Materials and Minerals used in Industry, held a workshop to identify how the USGS could make a significant scientific contribution to problems of minerals for emerging technologies. The workshop was held with leading representatives of the industrial minerals community, under the auspices of the Society of Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration's (SME) Industrial Minerals Division, concurrent with SME's annual meeting in Salt Lake City, February 25, 2008. The principal findings of the workshop conform to the objectives of this project:

  1. Minerals required for carbon dioxide sequestration and reduction will have a significant impact in terms of mineral production and economic benefits. The minerals required, such as olivine, are currently mined and used on a small scale. The USGS can make a significant impact by assessing the quantity and quality of these resources, known and undiscovered. (Task 2)
  2. The performance and environmental impact of industrial minerals can be improved by better understanding the presence and geology of trace impurities. The USGS can make a significant impact by developing predictive criteria for industrial mineral deposit with desired and undesired characteristics. (Task 3)
  3. Many minerals and metals are at risk of supply disruptions from curtailment of exports and rapid increases in supply that outstrip supply. The USGS can make a significant impact by developing quantitative measures of these risks such that policy makers, consumers, and suppliers can evaluate the importance of these risks and prioritize efforts to reduce these risks. (Task 1)


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