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Policy-bereft helium is planet’s most critical element – Hitzman

3rd July 2013

By: Martin Creamer

Creamer Media Editor

  

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JOHANNESBURG (miningweekly.com) – Helium gas, which was earth’s most critical energy element, remained outside of any global policy frameworks, US Colorado School of Mines luminary Murray Hitzman said on Tuesday.

Delivering the keynote address at GeoForum 2013 in Johannesburg, the Washington DC-based geological leader was speaking on the minerals of the future.

Responding to questions on energy-critical elements, Hitzman said that if the world at some point decided to go back to widespread use of nuclear power – and he believed it was pretty inevitable that the world would have to – the real coolant of choice was helium, as it did not become radioactive.

“So if we’re actually going to do nuclear, we are going to have to have helium,” he said.

But currently, helium was bleeding out of the atmosphere and going into space and getting it out of the atmosphere was prohibitively expensive.

“Helium is the most critical element on the planet right now and we don’t have a policy for it,” he added.

Earlier, he had stressed the importance of energy-critical elements like tellurium, a toxic metal needed for thin-film solar panels, and neodymium, used in wind turbines.

The uncommon energy-critical elements also tended to be expensive and were changing position in terms of importance of use and supply risk regularly.

The dynamic, constantly changing situation was as much a policy challenge as it was a market issue.

While a metal like copper was a critical energy element, there was no supply risk as it could be obtained from many different parts of the world.

But in the case of platinum, the criticality of which was increasing, there was a supply risk in that virtually all of it came from one country, South Africa.

Rare earths had become critical after they were restricted by China, which left an undersupply for the rest of the world and rising prices.

One element recently listed by the Europeans as being critical was tin, on which there was now a special focus.

While critical minerals were not a big issue in Washington this year, he was sure they would be again as the next supply concern arose.

Geoscientists thus needed to think about how they could work proactively to even things out.

“Going forward, we need to have a handle on basically every element in the periodic table,” Hitzman said.

The US would need 400 t of tellurium for every gigawatt of solar energy. 

Total known world tellurium supply of 48 000 t would be hopelessly out of kilter if the world went solar, especially since considerably less was produced using the solvent-extraction method of copper processing.

One solar energy company has taken the step of employing geologists to go out and find tellurium to meet projected needs.

Neodymium’s use in wind turbines has also seen it price rise, with the general rule of thumb of 1 t of neodymium being needed for a megawatt of power.

So far, attempts to use less neodymium have not worked.

Electric cars are also increasing demand for lithium and lanthanum, the Chevy Leaf needing 180 g for its lithium ion batteries and the Toyota Prius requiring 10 kg to 25 kg of lanthanum.

There are no lithium supply issues and lanthanum is derived from rare earths with known reserves in a number of countries.

Human resources are a concern given that there were only 4 000 geoscientists in the world to find all the world’s metals, oil, gas and groundwater.

“That scares me. There are not enough people going into our field,” Hitzman pointed out, adding that mining geologists would, in the future, need to work much more like petroleum geologists, in teams with other professions and using four-dimensional interpretation.

Geologists also had to interact with different cultures and governments and needed to be anthropologists and politicians as well.

Edited by Creamer Media Reporter

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