Photo by: Reuters
VANCOUVER (miningweekly.com) – A team of researchers at the University of Exeter’s Camborne School of Mines, based in Cornwall, the UK, are pioneering the development of a ‘Fairtrade’ model for ethically and sustainably resourcing raw materials that are crucial in the manufacturing of next-generation technologies.
The research highlights ethical sourcing of materials for modern technology and has identified methods to predict the environmental and social cost of resourcing new deposits of rare earth minerals used in the production of mobile phones, wind turbines and electric vehicles.
“Manufacturers are likely to be interested in the sophisticated life cycle assessment approach that can interface with their own technical calculations in determining the complete life cycle figures for their products. Experience shows though that the public is more likely to be interested in just one or two high profile issues, such as radioactivity or conflict minerals,” said professor of applied mineralogy Frances Wall in a statement.
The traditional ‘Fairtrade’ and responsibly sourced schemes, commonly used for coffee, tea, bananas and jewellery are hard to apply to mining because of the complex supply chains associated with the raw materials. However, geoscientists have unique insight into this area and have the ability to measure environmental and social impacts associated with the mining and processing of these raw materials.
In the research, the team highlights the crucial role that geoscientists can play in developing life cycle assessment techniques for potential new deposits of rare earth elements, to meet the growing worldwide demand.
The research has been published in scientific journal, Elements.
“It is important that we understand the environmental costs of generating these rare earths so that we can [not only] select the right projects to support but also research and improve the areas of production with a greater environmental cost. This is especially important when you consider the demand growth of rare earths, and their importance in the proliferation of green technology,” PhD student at the Camborne School of Mines and paper co-author Robert Pell said in a news release.
New technologies are making use of a wider range of elements than ever before, and many of these are specialist, used in small quantities and mined from only a few sources. However, it is near impossible for consumers buying cars, computers or phones to check whether they have responsible supply chains right back to the source of the raw materials.
Geologists play an important role in determining the amount of rock required to produce the desired amount of raw material, and can also provide important environmental information such as radioactivity of the rocks being extracted. Metallurgists and mineral processors provide data on energy requirements for extracting and processing these raw materials. Chemists, such as French co-author Alain Rollat, have perhaps the most difficult task of separating the rare earth elements from each other, ready for the next stage of manufacturing.
The paper is part of a thematic set on mineral resources and sustainability published this month in Elements. The University of Exeter research was funded as part of the NERC SoS RARE project.