PERTH (miningweekly.com) – Finding easily accessible resources would become increasingly difficult as global demand continued to grow, but Rio Tinto CEO Tom Albanese said that it was premature to speculate about mineral depletion.
Albanese, who was speaking at the China Overseas Investment Fair, said that the earth’s geological endowment of minerals was “absolutely enormous” and that speculation on ‘peak metals’, like ‘peak oil’, was premature.
“That said, it will be increasingly more difficult to find potentially high-grade mineral resources,” Albanese added.
The term ‘peak oil’ refers to the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline. With demand for commodities burgeoning, questions are being raised about the earth’s ability to sustainably continue supply.
Using iron-ore as an example, Albanese said that it was the fourth most abundant element contained in the earth’s crust and that the amount of iron available for mineral use was “huge”.
“So, even if no more high-grade deposits are found by ongoing mineral exploration, although this is highly unlikely, technology or incentive price will allow the industry to mine lower and lower grades out into the future.”
Albanese further noted that some estimates confirmed that global copper reserves were replaced as fast as they were mined. “This same picture of sustainable supply applies to all major industrial commodities,” he added.
While giant deposits currently dominated the industry, Albanese noted that the future of mining was underground.
“The new trend is towards discovery of buried deposits, some very high grade. So there is enormous potential for buried mineralisation around existing openpit mines. And this will be a fertile avenue for copper exploration for many decades to come.”
However, Albanese noted that underground mines were more expensive to run and raised the question of being economically attractive. This, he added, is where technology would provide some of the answers.
“Innovation and technology is an increasingly effective way to find new resources in a sustainable way.”
Making reference to Rio Tinto’s technology and innovation programme Mine of the Future, Albanese said that it is developing and adopting advanced mining technologies to improve productivity, capture more of the available mineral resource and reduce the environmental footprint.
He noted that in Rio’s exploration activities, the company was in partnership with the University of Western Australia on step-change technology, which measures changes in the earth’s gravity.
“This has the potential to significantly enhance our ability to explore for minerals in different terrains. We are also developing micro-analytical techniques to explore for diamonds and metals; and using three-dimensional visualisation approaches to understand where minerals are located underground.”
Innovation in sinking shafts and tunnelling technology was the key to unlocking mineral deposits in a sustainable way, Albanese said. Remotely controlled autonomous equipment would also provide the next generation of mining efficiencies and more safe working conditions as shown here.
“This approach uses advanced ways to extract minerals deep within the earth while reducing environmental impacts.”
Albanese estimated that the global minerals demand had grown by around 3,5% a year over the last century, which was roughly equivalent to doubling demand every 20 years.
Demand for aluminium products particularly increased, he added.
“This trend suggests that over the next 20 years, we expect to see an extra three-billion people with incomes reaching $15 000. In contrast, it took 200 years for the first billion people to reach this goal.
“Substantial quantities of minerals will be needed to achieve such a transformation in living standards.”
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