A research team at the University of Delaware argues that we need to develop a more sustainable supply of technology minerals.

This open pit mine in Morenci, Arizona, is the largest copper producer in North America. Photo: Shutterstock

A recent international study shows that many materials that are necessary for technology ranging from cell phones to hybrid or electric cars are hard to come by and poorly documented.

“There are treaties on climate change, biodiversity, migratory species and even waste management of organic chemicals, but there is no international mechanism to govern how mineral supply should be coordinated,” said lead author Saleem Ali of the University of Delaware.

Commodity metals such as iron ore, copper, gold, and other precious metals, are sold on a global market the same way oil is sold. But rare earth metals and other technology minerals are sold through individual dealers, which can cause prices to vary greatly.

Another issue is that it takes 10 to 15 years to develop a rare earth mineral deposit from exploration to discovery. Additionally, most discoveries are not economically viable or run into problems due to geopolitical challenges.

“Countries where minerals are likely to be found may have poor governance, making it higher risk for supply. But production from these countries will be needed to meet global demand. We need to be thinking about this,” Ali said.

Consumers often think that if there’s a problem with mineral supply, it would be possible to just use something else. But for many materials, there is no viable replacement. Copper, for example, is absolutely necessary for electrical wiring, and at this point, no other mineral can safely replace it.

Technology minerals may face the same challenges. Although metals like neodymium, terbium, or iridium are only needed in small quantities, they are indispensable in the production of tech tools.

If we’re not careful, the study argues, we could start running out of the very materials we need in order to make alternative fuel options a reality. In addition, some materials, like carbon fibers, make significant use of petroleum and other resources, meaning that they can contribute to pollution even while being used to develop green options.

It’s also hard to recycle a lot of the technology minerals that we need more of, partly because methods to recycle them simply don’t exist yet. “People have been so concerned about climate change that it’s created a real movement around it. We don’t see this around resource use and recovery, even though it is much closer to us on a daily basis,” Ali said.

The bottom line, Ali and his colleagues argue, is that in the short term, an intergovernmental mechanism or some other international solution is needed in order to plan for scarcity of technology minerals. Developing organizations such as the United Nations’ International Resource Panel could provide a model. In the long term, greater transparency among nations would be required, as would the creation of mechanisms to protect mineral deposit finds in the same way intellectual property is protected.