The Future Mining of "Tech Metals"

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There are seventeen rare earth metals that are listed on the periodic table, of which can either fall into the category of being heavy or light rare earths, depending on their atomic weight.

These elements are described as “rare,” not necessarily due to their presence within Earth’s deposits, as these metals are actually quite ubiquitous within the Earth’s crust, but the challenge of these metals is instead due to the ability to find economically recoverable quantities1.

The increased interest in utilizing the various advantageous properties is directly related to the rise in the development of cell phones over the last twenty years.

Rare Earth Metals

  • Yttrium
  • Scandium
  • Lanthanum
  • Cerium
  • Praseodymium
  • Neodymium
  • Promethium
  • Samarium
  • Europium
  • Gadolinium
  • Terbium
  • Dysprosium
  • Holmium
  • Erbium
  • Thulium
  • Ytterbium
  • Lutetium1

As key ingredients in products in cell phones, rare earths are also actively present in computers, optical fibers, headphones, microphones, loudspeakers, screen displays, and several other electronic applications2.

For these uses, rare earths are often utilized as phosphor activators, thereby determining the emission spectra of the phosphor in order to assist in the conversion of energy that is absorbed into the device to radiant energy that can ultimately allow for the creation of high definition and colorful visuals that are useful in a wide variety of electronics.

Rare earth elements are most commonly found within igneous rocks, at locations around the world including various areas of Russia. Greenland, the United States, Canada, Brazil, Australia, and China3.

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Of these countries, China controls about 95% of the production of rare earth metals that takes place around the world, and as a result, they have often controlled its exportation n to other countries through the implementation of strict tariffs.

In an effort to create a greater market for their own exportation of these metals, Australia is currently looking at ways in which they can advance their mining technologies for this exact purpose.

The term “tech metals” is an umbrella term that includes not only these rare earth metals, but also other minerals and metals, such as lithium and vanadium, are used in most technological applications. While the two largest mineral commodities in Australia are recorded as iron ore and coal, recent discoveries of large lithium deposits could transform this nation as the capital of the world’s tech metals4.

Lithium, whose most important application is found in rechargeable batteries, plays a crucial role in the development and manufacturing of most electronic devices5. Following the recent discovery Australia’s Mount Marion mine, Australia has discovered that not only is their lithium of better quality than that which is offered by the Chinese, but it is also present in large quantities that could provide for a great economic growth for this nation4.

Similarly, Australian vanadium concentrations have been found to be of some of the highest quality vanadium present in the world. Vanadium, a metal that has been traditionally used to strengthen steel, has found a recent value in the current technological industry particularly in the use of redox, or “flow,” batteries4.

Australian researchers are already utilizing their “home court advantage” in their local quantities of vanadium, as the University of Western Australia has already successfully developed their first batch of vanadium electrolytes to be applied into future batteries, a venture that is expected to aid some of the world’s largest flow battery producers.

The rising interest in finding deposits within the Earth to mine tech metals such as lithium, vanadium and the rare earths holds a wealth of future information for technological purposes, as well as a clear advantage for the economies of these nations.

While a single rare earth mine is estimated to employ 100 people, a supply chain of this type could have the potential to employ 1 million people, which would completely increase the prosperity of any given economy.

References

  1. "The Geology of Rare Earth Elements." Geology.
  2. "Electronics." Rare Earth Technology Alliance
  3. "The Geology of Rare Earth Elements." Geology.
  4. "Why the next Mining Boom Will Be Driven by Tech Metals." ABC Rural. 17 Apr. 2017.
  5. "Lithium Mines to Grow Sevenfold as Chinese Investment Propels WA Boom." ABC News. 08 Feb. 2017.

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