Metals, mines and mobiles:
The life cycle of metals in the natural and human environment

Hand holding Iphone 4, © iStock / TommL

BGS minerals geologist Andrew Bloodworth joined a group of experts at the Metals, mines and mobiles event at the British Science Festival in Bradford (10–15 September 2011). The talks focused on the life cycle of technology metals and presented the BGS Risk list 2011:

  • technology metals are used in ceramic capacitors, magnets and rechargeable batteries; all used in devices such as smart phones to reduce their weight and increase performance
  • wind turbines use neodymium-iron-boron magnets in the alternators used to generate electricity
  • electric cars also use neodymium magnets; the manufacture of a Toyota Prius requires about a kilogram of neodymium

Technology metals

Wind turbines use neodymium-iron-boron magnets. Electric cars use neodymium magnets.

The new digital and environmental technologies on which we will rely to deliver a prosperous, low carbon economy often contain metals which have previously been of little interest to man.

These 'technology metals' — the celebrities of the periodic table — are completely intertwined with modern life, present in thousands of products and increasingly indispensable.

Despite the fact that elements such as indium, rhenium, gallium and the rare earths are vital ingredients in a wide range of high technology components such as motors, batteries, solar cells and display devices, our comprehension of their 'life cycle' compared to metals produced in large volumes such as copper, lead and aluminium is relatively poor.

Consumption rates are rising rapidly and there is now an urgent need to better understand the origins and concentration processes of these elements in the Earth's crust.

We also need to maximise efficiency of use (do more with less), ensure that we recover and recycle these 'technology metals' where possible and improve our understanding of what might happen if we lose them into the natural environment.

The West has a responsibility especially towards developing countries to ensure that our demand for technology metals does not have an adverse environmental, social and political impact.

BA festival event

Technology metals

A panel of experts at the Metals, mines and mobiles event presented talks on the life cycle of technology metals:

Origins of technology metals
Professor Frances Wall (Head of Camborne School of Mines): explains what they are, how they form and where we find them

Mine, all mine
Andrew Bloodworth (Head of Minerals & Waste, British Geological Survey): the scramble for resources of technology metals

Can I have it back when you're finished please?
Alan McLelland (Director, National Metals Technology Centre): the use of technology metals in everyday objects

Forgotten, but not gone
Dr Paul Mitchell (Director, Green Horizons Environmental Consultants Ltd): the afterlife of technology metals and their ultimate fate in the environment

New 'Risk List' of elements

Sand timer, ©iStock / DNY59

Geological processes produce valuable deposits of metals. Some are easy to mine such as mineral sands.

Others are formed of complex minerals locked up in hard rock deposits that have never been mined before and would require energy intensive processes to extract them.

'degrees of separation'

Radioactive thorium often occurs with minerals rich in rare earth elements (REEs), this is typically the case with mineral sands.

Sometimes it can easily be separated as it occurs in minerals such as monazite but often it occurs right in the crystal lattice of REE mineral which makes it difficult and expensive to remove.

A new 'BGS Risk list 2011 ' of elements shows how China dominates production of the majority of technology metals.

China currently accounts for 80% of global tungsten production, 93% of germanium and 99% of rare earths.

'critical raw materials'

As demand grows, securing a reliable supply of technology metals is high on the agenda of many countries and the EU has identified a number of 'critical raw materials' where security of supply for manufacturers is a major concern.

In the future, most of the primary technology metals we consume will come from resources in the developing world, especially Africa, South America and Asia.

However, despite the promise of wealth and happiness, most developing countries that are rich in resources have fared badly — this 'resource curse' has a negative impact on their security, environment, society and political stability.

We are seemingly oblivious to the ultimate fate of technology metals.

With less than 1 per cent of many technology metals recycled, where does the rest go?

If you're lucky enough to live in the western world, a highly engineered landfill perhaps. Elsewhere, who knows?

Air, water, soil, fauna and flora and us – Homo sapiens – are all possibilities.
Ignorance may not always be bliss; what we don't know may in fact hurt us and it's time to plug the gaps in our understanding.

Celebrities often turn out to have another, darker side away from the spotlight – might the same be true for technology metals?

Rare earth elements (REE): a few facts

Rare Earth Elements (REE): are not so rare in the Earth's crust.

The crustal abundance of REE is greater than silver.

REE such as cerium (Ce) have similar crustal abundances to copper and lead.

The term 'rare earth' is a misnomer arising from the rarity of the minerals from which they were originally isolated in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Current concerns about REE supply relate to the almost total concentration of production in China and the fact that production of REEs from new mines elsewhere in the world is slow to get going. As a consequence, prices for some REEs have risen very sharply in the last two years. This is a major concern for manufacturers, particularly the car industry.

Contact

Further information contact Clive Mitchell in the BGS Press Office.