JOHANNESBURG (miningweekly.com) – Nothing can stop the proliferation of iPhones, solar panels and Teslas, except perhaps a shortage of key natural resources, comments the latest Fortune magazine, which puts manganese from South Africa on the list of crucial technology metals needed in the US.
Fortune’s world map showing the sources of America’s most wanted technology minerals heading for short supply in coming years lists South Africa and Australia as the sole suppliers of 100% of the manganese brought into the US for use in lithium-ion batteries.
The magazine’s article draws on a technical paper published by an international team of researchers led by the University of Delaware's Saleem Ali, which calls for global resource governance and the sharing of geoscience data to address challenges facing future mineral supply, for the likes of laptop computers, electric cars, solar panels and even home power.
The paper also names cobalt as a future projected supply-short technology metal and Fortune adds that the price of cobalt has risen by 76% so far this year, which could be mimicked by the prices of other technology metals in the absence of an international mechanism to govern the coordination of mineral supply.
Just as there are treaties on climate change, biodiversity, migratory species and even waste management of organic chemicals, the research team – which included experts from academic, government and industrial institutions across the US, Europe, South Africa, Australia and South America – emphasises the need for a technology metals-type treaty as well.
Reporting its findings in a peer-reviewed paper in the publication Nature, the research team also projects rare earths as future short-supply metals needed in high-performance magnets, and indium, tellurium and gallium as potentially short given the growing demand for solar power technologies.
Adding to the challenge for Silicon Valley is that these technology minerals are largely concentrated outside of the US, Fortune’s Brian O’ Keefe comments.
The study shows that mining exploration is not keeping up with future demand for minerals and that recycling in and of itself will not be able to meet the demand either.
At the same time, transitioning to a low-carbon society will require vast amounts of metals and minerals to manufacture clean technologies and the researchers say society is not equipped to meet the additional needs for these raw materials.
According to the researchers, international coordination is needed on where to focus exploration investment efforts, the kind of minerals that are likely to be found in different locations and hence the kind of bilateral agreements that are needed between various countries.
A huge opportunity for South Africa lies on the cobalt front. This is because platinum mining companies that currently destroy the cobalt content of platinum-group metals (PGMs) in high-temperature pyrometallurgical processing have the opportunity to preserve cobalt by switching to a new proven hydrometallurgical method of processing.
This new cost-slashing, time-saving, capital-unlocking, cobalt-saving technology has been developed by diversified mining company Pallinghurst, with strong support from South Africa’s State-owned Industrial Development Corporation (IDC).
Planned is a cobalt-saving plant at Sedibeng platinum mine, in the North West province, and several of them in Zimbabwe.
The new proven Kell process uses less than a fifth of the electricity required for smelting and refines the PGMs at a fraction of the traditional cost as part of the process, which also opens the way for on-site product manufacture.
IDC divisional executive: mining and metals industries Abel Malinga, pictured, outlined to Mining Weekly Online earlier this year that the hydrometallurgical processing route also copes well with the chromite in the upper group two reef, which smelting finds problematic. Cutoff grades are also taken far lower, which extends mine life.
As outlined to Mining Weekly Online by Malinga, the IDC is going all out to support technologies that enable South Africa to beneficiate far more effectively and in a manner that is environment friendly.
FURTHER COMMENTS OF RESEARCHERS
Ali and his colleagues want the research paper to be the first step towards an intergovernmental mechanism that empowers countries to plan for mineral scarcity.
They believe that positive strides can be made quickly through the United Nation's International Resource Panel and the Canadian-led Intergovernmental Panel on Mining Metals and Sustainable Development.
Longer-term solutions could include global sharing of geological data and the creation of mechanisms to protect mineral deposit discoveries, much like the world currently protects intellectual property.
Ali’s team points out that if nothing changes, shrinking supply could cause prices to spike and lead to serious global challenges.