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STUDY - Coordinated global effort needed to avoid mineral supply constraints

The Bingham Canyon Copper Mine in Utah. Author: Doc Searls.

March 22 (Renewables Now) - An international mechanism to oversee mineral supply is needed as the transition to a low carbon society is leading to greater demand for metals and minerals for clean technologies, a new study says.

The paper warns of possible supply shortage of technology minerals used in mobile devices, electric vehicles, solar photovoltaics (PV) and other technologies. Base metals like copper are also a matter of “immense concern”.

The international team of researchers from the US, Europe, South Africa, Australia and South America say that mining exploration is falling behind future demand for minerals, while recycling would not be able to meet the demand either.

For rare earth minerals, for example, it takes 10 to 15 years to take a deposit from exploration and discovery to mining. These and other technology minerals are currently sold through individual dealers and the variation is price can be significant.

“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,” says Saleem Ali from the University of Delaware who is lead author of the paper. His team says international coordination is key to determining where to focus exploration investment efforts, what kind of minerals are likely to be found in different locations and then what kind of bilateral agreements are needed between the involved countries.

“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.

The study says that some progress in the right direction can be made quickly through the expansion of developing organisations, such as the United Nation’s International Resource Panel or the Intergovernmental Panel on Mining Metals and Sustainable Development. In the longer term it would be crucial to achieve greater transparency among nations, with measures such as global sharing of geological data and mechanisms to protect mineral deposit ‘finds’.

If no measures are taken and things remain as they are prices will rise.

“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.” The researchers noted that even nuclear power can be affected by mineral scarcity.

Find the peer-reviewed paper here.

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