Minerals at Risk and for Emerging Technologies
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Mineral supply is a recurring problem manifest in today's high mineral and metal prices. Rapid economic growth in China and India has pushed mineral demand beyond the ability of mineral producers to respond with additional production capacity. There are several emerging technologies essential to development of alternative fuels, reductions in carbon dioxide and other emissions, and sequestration of carbon dioxide with potential mineral requirements that can greatly exceed current production capacity and possibly known resources. Evaluating these potential shortfalls will helps investors in emerging technologies chose alternatives that are most feasible with respect to future mineral supplies. This same kind of potential supply analysis can be extended to mineral commodities in general, identifying and quantifying the potential impact of minerals at risk of supply problems. Another potential supply problem is unanticipated impurities in minerals that create environmental hazards or disposal problems and may affect performance for consumers. Developing ways to predict the occurrence of these impurities from observable geological factors will helps direct mineral investment toward environmentally more benign resources.
The objectives of this project will be achieved through three tasks:
- Minerals at risk, which will address quantitative measures of mineral supply risk, strategic options to deal with that risk, and investigate some significant backstop resources
- Minerals for emerging technologies will evaluate the geology and resource potential of minerals for carbon dioxide sequestration and reduction, as well as for several other mineral commodities essential for emerging alternative energy, energy-saving, and other advanced technologies
- Mineral and byproduct purity, which will address the geology of impurities in widely-used industrial minerals, trace elements in metal ores that are or may be valuable byproducts, and the geological relationship between industrial mineral deposits and asbestos.
- Minerals at Risk
Develop and apply measures of the degree of concentration of mineral supply sources and begin development of measures of the likelihood of mineral supply disruptions using established measures of country risk and of measures of potential impairments to the national economy from supply disruptions; conduct a scoping study of potential back-stop resources for all significant mineral commodities; and begin selected studies of potential backstop resources, including updating our database of trace elements in major ore minerals from significant domestic deposits.
- Quantitative Measures of Mineral Supply Risk - Develop quantitative measures of the risk of mineral supply disruptions for those mineral commodities for which the United States is significantly import dependent. These tools will measure the degree of concentration of import suppliers, evaluate the likelihood of supply disruptions given established measures of country risk, assess potential domestic production and substitution responses to a loss of imports, and address potential impairments to the domestic economy from these changes in mineral supply.
- Strategic Options for Minerals at Risk - Identify alternative long-term sources of mineral supply in back-stop resources and significant opportunities for substitution with other mineral commodities. We will also undertake preliminary cost estimates of developing back-stop resources and recommend earth science investigations of inadequately understood domestic back-stop resources.
- Preliminary Studies of Back-stop Resources - Research on the occurrence, distribution, and mineralogical and geochemical characteristics of backstop and substitute mineral resources based on recommendations of Subtasks above. A development plan for commodity and mineral deposit-types will parallel targeted completion schedule established by Mineral Resource Program for the National Assessment deposit model and grade-tonnage model efforts.
- Minerals for Emerging Technologies
- Researchers at the USGS, working in cooperation with researchers at Columbia University, New York, will initially develop a digital geologic database of ultramafic rocks in the United States. The data will be compiled from varied-scale geologic maps that show the distribution of magnesium-silicate ultramafic rocks (serpentinites, dunite, and peridotite). The project staff will look at major deposits of raw material feedstock for these and other replacements for Portland cement. A study is underway on the valuable and uncommon mineral resources associated with carbonatites and alkalic igneous complexes, which include significant deposits of titanium, niobium, REE, thorium, and vanadium. Another study is researching unconventional deposit types for platinum group metals.
- Minerals for Carbon Dioxide Sequestration and Reduction - Research by the U.S. Department of Energy, international research groups, and several universities have investigated methods to sequester carbon dioxide through a process called mineral carbonation, also known as mineral sequestration. This process involves capturing carbon dioxide emissions from point sources (such as fossil fuel-fired power plants) and converting the gaseous carbon dioxide to a stable solid by combining carbon dioxide in an aqueous media with MgO or CaO, thereby precipitating solid carbonate phases, specifically magnesite or calcite. Research has shown that silicate minerals with high concentrations of magnesium are suitable for mineral carbonation reactions, in particular rock types enriched in serpentine minerals or olivine, including serpentinite, dunite, and peridotite.
- Geologic Sources of Minerals for Emerging Technologies - Investigate the geology, geochemistry, and potential resources of rare earth elements (REE), in particular heavy REE, in the United States and elsewhere. Other commodities of importance to emerging technologies will be studied as project staffing and expertise grows. A study is underway on the valuable and uncommon mineral resources associated with carbonatites and alkalic igneous complexes, which include significant deposits of titanium, niobium, REE, thorium, and vanadium. Another study is researching unconventional deposit types for platinum group metals. Mineral commodities of evolving technological and socioeconomic importance can be added to this task, recognizing that the supply of specialized mineral materials is a vital part of sustaining technologic and economic growth.
- Traditional and Emerging Construction Materials for an Aging Infrastructure - Develop procedures to evaluate and understand effects of aggregate resource extraction on ecosystem processes in order to allow managers to consider aggregate resource development in the context of multiple land-use options. The task will also evaluate the embodied energy of various types of aggregate resources. The products will be designed to dovetail into the complex “life cycle” assessment methodology that examines occurrence, formation processes, extraction methods, use, and waste products of aggregate resource assessment.
- Method Development - Quick Assessment of Rare Metals in Ore Deposits and Product Purity in Industrial Bulk Minerals - Develop methodologies and analytical techniques for rapid low-cost assessment of rare metals in ore deposits and for the characterization of industrial bulk mineral commodities. A protocol for analyses of bulk ore and individual ore-related minerals from ore samples will also be developed using a combination of laser ablation ICP-MS and microprobe analyses. Integration of these techniques would potentially allow rapid and cost effective assessments of rare metals from different ore-forming environments. Characterization of chemical characteristic and metal residence will advance our understanding of deposit formation and improve mineral deposit models for rare metals. Developed methodologies will be tested and modified to screen industrial bulk mineral products for mineral/chemical purity.
- Mineral and Byproduct Purity
Mineral commodities in unprocessed form, whether in the categories of bulk rock or specialty minerals, can contain unexpected impurities in the form of natural compositional variations, anthropogenic contaminants, and mineral inclusions, which can significantly impact technological and environmental outcomes of material processing. By-product elements are typically concentrated in either product or waste during the processing cycle. Byproducts include solid, liquid and gas forms of processed materials and waste products. Byproduct is used here as a neutral alternative to waste product, as many of these materials can be considered potential value-added commodities, as well as back-stop and substitute resources for other commodities. Saleable byproducts of the processing cycle enhance the value of a product as a potential additional resource commodity, whereas hazardous by-products increase the cost of production due to the necessary additions of technological and environmental controls to the processing cycle. The development of scientifically robust geological and geochemical models that can be used to predict the presence of by-product minerals and elements that have the potential to enhance or detract from the value of a particular commodity, will significantly reduce uncertainty in the assessment of mineral resources and the environmental effects of mining and processing, especially with respect to those commodities in at risk categories and those necessary for emerging technologies. Additional bulk and specialty commodities of importance to emerging technologies with the potential to contain byproducts that impact assessment value will be studied as project staffing and expertise grows.
- Commodity Driven; Contaminant and Impurity Requirements - Examine one or more groupings of bulk mineral commodities that have a wide variety of product applications and uses and whose successful application or use are a function of a degree of mineral purity, the presence of impurities, and composition of waste products. Opportunities will be initiated and explored to develop CRADAs with interested parties. The subtask will identify critical groupings of bulk mineral commodities and characterize their specific presence and expected distribution based on geological and geochemical conditions of formation, depositional environment, diagenesis, and other factors. The groups are:
- Clays: The subtask will develop models to predict which clay mineral deposit types have significant potential for impurities that may be released during processing. Impurities under consideration include metals such as arsenic and lead, organo-metals, organic molecules such as dioxin, and hazardous air pollutants such as fluorine and sulfur. Initial work will focus on ball clay, brick clay, Fuller’s Earth, bentonite, and specialty ceramics, and will build on previous studies of selenium and other trace metals in phosphates.
- We will look at other bulk mineral commodities, such as bauxite, nepheline syenite, kaolinite, zeolite, natural pigments, and agricultural minerals in the out years as staff and budget become available.
- Deposits with non-metallic byproducts such as zeolite and natural pigments.
- Byproduct Driven: Value-Added Trace Elements as Impurities in Commodities - Examine byproduct commodities by deposit type that have unusual or restricted product applications, emerging uses, and whose production is affected by the presence, levels, and distribution of saleable byproducts. Building on the results of subtask 1.2 and data complied in subtask 1.3, in conjunction with subtask 2.1 and 2.2, we conduct studies on the occurrence and distribution of trace-elements of interest that occur in significant US mineral deposits and significant type-examples of deposits world-wide:
- Platinum Group Elements in meteor-impact detritus and chromium-nickel deposits
- Indium and other trace elements of interest in epithermal deposits, with a focus on those requiring high resolution analytical techniques
- Rhenium, indium, thallium, and other trace elements in copper porphyry, tin-granite, Mississippi Valley, and volcanogenic massive sulfide deposits.
- Deposits with non-metallic minerals and metal byproducts: U in non conventional mineral sources.
- The Geologic Relationships of Industrial Mineral Deposits and Asbestos - Research and explain the geologic relationships between industrial mineral deposits and asbestos. These geologic insights can be used by the mining industry, regulators, land managers, and others to properly focus attention on the critical locales most likely to contain asbestos, while also saving efforts on the mineral deposits that are unlikely to host asbestos.
- Cooperative Efforts with Energy: Mixed Mineral-Energy Resource Issues - Begin planning for the investigation of studies of mineral resource and byproduct purity issues that have relevance to or are a direct outcome of energy resources. Identify studies of mineral resource and byproduct purity issues that have relevance to or are a direct outcome of energy resources and where there is mutual interest in and need for cooperative work.
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