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Minerals: How Important Are They?

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How important are minerals?

There is competition around the globe for acquiring minerals that form an important part of our high-tech communication devices, or that assist in more complex feats such as powering electric vehicles or jet fighters. Here at home, the government is increasingly interested in questions about security involving the supply of critical minerals. The U.S. Geological Survey assists in looking for answers.

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Minerals explained

A mineral is a crystalline solid that occurs naturally in various mediums. As lava cools, for example, it becomes igneous rock in which tiny minerals are formed, such as mica or feldspar. Due to chemical changes, river water, seawater, or even groundwater can release minerals such as salt. Heavy gold minerals are often found in the bottom of riverbeds, but lighter minerals like quartz or feldspar will drift in the water, eventually washing up on shore. Mineral deposits can be located using satellite imagery or geochemical surveys and removed through mining or quarrying.

About rare earth metals

Four images, each displaying different types of rocks or minerals. The top left rock is greenish, the top right rocks are grey and shiny, the bottom left rock is dark and jagged, and the bottom right is dark and shiny.

Also known as REEs, rare earth metals are a collection of 17 soft, heavy metals such as neodymium (Nd) and cerium (Ce). Although they are found to be plentiful in the earth’s crust, they are not often seen in concentrations of their own. REEs are essential to producing glass, certain metal alloys, and high-performance electronics. Neodymium and samarium (Sm) are used in the production of magnets capable of withstanding high temperatures. Magnets, in turn, are essential in producing hard disks, cell phones, and other electronics. They are also used in the manufacture of wind turbine generators and electric vehicle (EV) engines.

REE reserves

With 44 million tons of reserves and 140,000 tons in annual mine production, China is the world’s leader in rare earth elements. Vietnam and Brazil are second and third, respectively. The United States ranks seventh with 1,500,000 reserves as of 2020 and relies on imports from China’s tightly controlled supply of refined rare earth elements.

Wartime supply issues

The invasion of Ukraine is affecting the mineral commodity supply chain due to sanctions placed on Russia. Since Russia is a major producer of mineral commodities, significant amounts of these commodities have become unavailable to Western nations. At the same time, China continues to control the supply of mineral commodities required for the production of semiconductors and other hi-tech items. The United States predicts that the supply chain issues will continue for the foreseeable future.

 

USGS objectives

Meanwhile, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) focuses on critical minerals here at home. Its mineral deposit database project (USMIN) seeks to become the authoritative source of information for the country’s most essential mines and mineral deposits. In 2019, the USGS introduced the Earth Mapping Resources Initiative (Earth MRI) to streamline the surface and subsurface mapping of the U.S. Earth MRI, identifying areas of the country that may contain critical mineral resources. However, there is a broader application in that the results of the data obtained can be used to place geothermal energy and water resources and identify areas prone to earthquakes, landslides, and flooding.

Always learning

Mineral deposits contain several byproducts. For example, cobalt is found as a byproduct in copper and nickel mining. Along with lithium, cobalt is in demand for the manufacture of EV batteries. Lithium is a light metal that is also easy to fashion into the small parts needed for making cell phones. There are a number of ways that rare earth elements and critical metals are used for today’s advanced technologies. However, experts believe that the supply of such vital components may be in peril as soon as 2030. As a result, the USGS seeks to find viable sources of critical minerals in America. Here at Urban E-Recycling, we keep up with the latest news and enjoy exchanging information as we help our customers with their e-recycling needs.

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