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Critical raw materials: our modern and daily life

My name is Alexandra, I’m ESR1, the only Colombian researcher in the SULTAN project but not the only south American one. I’m currently working on geometallurgy applied to the mining industry focused on finding resource potential for their tailings and the “leftovers” of their processing plants.

Some years ago, I found myself in an awkward situation: while reading the news feed on Facebook, I noticed several posts from some members of my family against mining industry and specially about “how we don’t need to extract minerals from the rocks” to keep living as we do. At first, I was shocked and upset about it but afterwards I questioned myself about how the people within the mining sector (all fields related) communicate to others what we do and why it is important, specially to our families.

I, then, discovered that although of my parents and sister were proud of me for my achievements, they didn’t fully understand how mining fit and impact our daily lives and how I contribute to this industry with my work.

I realized then, that a significative number of people doesn’t know about how the spoons we use, or our daily tools for work, the machinery in the streets, technological apparatus such as cell phones and computers need mining and industries related to supply the needs of our developing society, and that’s not wrong, we don’t go out thinking about mining and we are not obliged to know that, but when we want to set a critical position about certain activities such as mining I do think we should learn about it.

For example, in Colombia, some people do not acknowledge that materials used for construction come from the mining industry, because they just think that mining is making a huge hole or opening a large quantity of tunnels, well, some people got surprised when we explained that quarries are another type of mining to extract industrial minerals used for bricks, cement, tiles, windows among mostly everything of the basic you have in a house.

Note: In a simple way to explain, mining refers to the extraction of rocks, rocks are formed by minerals, and minerals are substances naturally occurring (not created in a lab), inorganic, solid, with a definitive chemical composition and with an ordered internal structure. Minerals carry those elements that later, we will use in our daily and modern life.

Nowadays, many people refer to minerals by primary or secondary raw materials depending on its source or critical and strategic based on the use, supply risk and economic importance. Minerals for military uses (such as tungsten, rhenium and tritium) are STRATEGIC and minerals for which a threat to supply could involve harm to the economy are CRITICAL, strategic minerals will be always critical but not all critical minerals are strategic.

Critical raw materials listed by European Commission (EC) in 2017 (Source: Study on the review of the list of critical raw materials 2017)

Figure 1. Critical raw materials listed by European Commission (EC) in 2017 (Source: Study on the review of the list of critical raw materials 2017 http://ec.europa.eu/growth/sectors/raw-materials/specific-interest/critical_en)

In 2017, the European Commission published the third and updated list of 27 critical raw materials based on refined methodologies within which we can find elements such as Indium, Germanium, tantalum and tungsten; these elements are widely used in electronic devices and processes to power them but also everywhere in our modern world. Let’s find some funny facts about those elements:

Do you know why your cellphone is able to vibrate when you are receiving a message, a call or to wake you up in the mornings??? Say thanks to Tungsten

Have you ever thought how the light bulbs and lamps are able to light to provide us with light our houses or our desk lamps to keep studying all night??? Wiring and filaments in many kinds of lamps use Tungsten.

Do you have an automated train in your city? Have you ever ridden in one??? Tantalum is required for them to work.

Have you ever wondered how your cell phone, your iPad or your computer holds on the battery to be used on the go?? Tantalum again doing its magic.

Do you love traveling?? Tin, tungsten and tantalum make up several major components in AIRPLANES.

Tungsten and tantalum allow you to send messages through your cell phone and play an important role in the communication services, did you know that Gold plays an important role in your sim card??? It does.

Some of you would probably have indium in one part of your body. Do you know how? Well, Indium is added to some dental amalgam alloys to decrease the surface tension.

Have you ever wondered how your cellphone can recognize your fingers when you touch it and how the screen works? Indium-tin oxide thin films are used to make Touch Screen Mobile phones.

Indium can be a life saver too…it is used to alloy fire-sprinkler system installed in houses, restaurants, hospitals…

Camera lenses, all those important parts of your car related to your safety and many other things contain Tantalum, so now can you get why these elements are considered critical raw materials? Modern society and mostly everything you use on your daily life is made with minerals and their chemical components,

Every day our society is demanding more and more of different materials in different industries and their supply chain from primary sources can’t be guaranteed; other sources need to be found based on environmentally friendly ideas, that’s the reason why I worked in the area of geometallurgy, doing research on mineral resource potential of tailings and old waste rock materials.

Currently, as a member of the SULTAN project for the Remediation and Reprocessing of Sulfidic Mining Waste Sites I’m looking forward to contribute by working on the geological and geometallurgical characterization of tailings and waste rock produced by a Copper-Zinc-Lead mine where important elements such as Indium, Tin, Selenium and others could be recovered. That’s what we hope!!

And just for a matter of general information, according to the EU Commission about Critical Raw Materials, China is the major supplier of critical raw materials, accounting for 70% of their global supply and 62% of their supply to the EU (e.g. rare earth elements, magnesium, antimony, natural graphite, etc.). Brazil (niobium), USA (beryllium and helium), Russia (palladium) and South Africa (iridium, platinum, rhodium and ruthenium) are also important producers of critical raw materials. The risks associated with the concentration of production are in many cases compounded by low substitution and low recycling rates[1]

Countries accounting for largest share of global supply of CRMs

Figure 2. Countries accounting for largest share of global supply of CRMs (Source: http://ec.europa.eu/growth/sectors/raw-materials/specific-interest/critical_en)

[1] http://ec.europa.eu/growth/sectors/raw-materials/specific-interest/critical_en