Harman Patil (Editor)

Critical mineral raw materials

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The 27 minerals and other commodities defined as "critical", "at risk" or "strategical" are necessary for a number of technologies of strategic importance; laptops and mobile phones in particular.



Several factors may combine together to make a raw material (mineral or not) a critical resource. These may include the following:

  • A ceiling on production: when the raw material reaches its Hubbert peak
  • A drop in known deposits
  • A decline in the ratio of production from the biggest deposits to production from smaller deposits, since the largest deposits supply most of a raw material's production
  • Inefficient price system: when the increase in the price of a raw material does not result in a proportional resulting increase in its production
  • Costs of extraction (money or effort) increase over time, as extraction becomes more difficult.
  • List of critical, at risk or strategic minerals and other commodities


  • copper,
  • europium,
  • terbium,
  • yttrium,
  • antimony,
  • phosphorus,
  • helium,
  • dysprosium,
  • neodymium,
  • rhenium,
  • uranium,
  • rhodium,
  • platinum,
  • gold,
  • zinc,
  • indium,
  • technetium-99,
  • helium-3,
  • silver,
  • germanium,
  • beryllium,
  • scandium,
  • tritium,
  • tungsten,
  • gallium,
  • tantalum,
  • niobium
  • Issues

    There are many issues about these resources and they concern a large number of people and human activities. It is possible to distinguish:

  • Economic: the price of metals increases when their scarcity or inaccessibility increases, and not only according to demand for them. As part of transition management, the circular economy invites citizens to recycle these resources as well as to save them and/or to replace them with alternatives when it is possible; that could be greatly facilitated with the generalization of ecotax and eco-design.
  • Geostrategic: These rare products are necessary for computer and other communications equipment and can themselves be the subject of armed conflict or simply provide armed conflict with a source of funding. Both coltan and blood diamonds have been examples of the resource curse that plagues some parts of Africa.
  • Social: Increasing globalization and mobility of people, means that telecoms and social networks depend more and more on the availability of these resources.
  • Health: Several critical metals or minerals are toxic or reprotoxic. Paradoxically, some cytotoxins are used in cancer therapy (and then also improperly discarded although really dangerous for the environment; the average cost of the treatment of a lung cancer varies between 20 000 and 27 000 euros). Thus, toxic and cancer-causing platinum is also widely used in cancer chemotherapy in the form of carboplatin and cisplatin, both cytotoxins combined with other molecules, including for example gemcitabine (GEM), vinorelbine (VIN), docetaxel (DOC) and paclitaxel (PAC).
  • Energy: Production of these metals and their compounds requires a significant and increasing amount of energy, and when they become rarer, it is necessary to search deeper for them, and the further mineral recovered is sometimes less condensed than previous production had been. In 2012, from 7 to 8% of all the energy used in the world was used to extract these minerals.
  • Environmental: The mines degrade the environment. The dispersion of minerals and toxic non-recycled metals degrades it too. Furthermore, the magnets in electrical motors, or wind and water turbines, as well as some components of solar panels also need many of these same minerals or rare metals.
  • Urgency

    According to the United Nations (2011, and then 2013), as the demand for rare metals will, with a rate of 3 to 9 times, quickly exceed the consumed tonnage in 2013,

    it is urgent and priority should be placed on recycling rare metals with a worldwide production lower than 100 000 t/year, in order to conserve natural resources and energy, but this measure will not be enough. Planned obsolescence of products which contain these metals should be limited, and all elements inside computers, mobile phones or other electronic objects found in electronic waste should be recycled. This involves looking for alternatives, eco-designed, and that the consumers and collectivities change their behavior in favor of the selective sorting aimed at an almost total recycling of these metals.

    In the same time, the demand for these materials "has to be optimized or reduced", insist Ernst Ulrich von Weizs├Ącker and Ashok Khosla, co-presidents of the International Resource Panel created in 2007 by the United States, and hosted by the UNEP) to analyse the impact of resource use on the environment in 2013.

    Europe alone produced about 12 million tons of metallic wastes in 2012, and this amount tends to grow more than 4% a year (faster than municipal waste). However, less than 20 metals, of the 60 studied by experts of the UNEP, were recycled to more than 50% in the world. For 34 compounds, they were recycled at lower than 1% of the total throw in the trash.

    According to the UNEP, even without new technologies, that rate could be greatly increased.

    The energy efficiency of the production and recycling methods has also to be developed.

    Precise and reliable information about the localization of the deposits of metals and rare minerals are very few available. According to Patrice Christmann of the BRGM, the international group could find more than 2 scientific articles about this "natural mineral heritage".

    Detail of critical mineral raw materials

  • Copper
  • Use: electronics, jewelry
  • Proven resources: 630 million tons
  • Annual production: 16 million tons
  • Reserves: 38 years
  • The "red metal", very malleable and a very good conductor of electricity; it allowed humankind to leave the Stone Age behind.
  • Copper has not naturally existed in a pure state since prehistory. Essential to our modern societies, mankind has already extracted 600 million tons of copper, 98% of this after the year 1900.
  • Europium, terbium and yttrium
  • Use: electronic
  • Annual production: 10,000 tons total.
  • These metals are essential in the production of LEDs and color screens.
  • Antimony
  • Use: fireproofing
  • Proven resources: 1.8 million tons.
  • Annual production: 169,000 tons.
  • Reserves: 11 years.
  • When this metal is no longer available everywhere, an increase in fires will be inevitable.
  • Phosphorus
  • Use: agricultural fertilizer
  • Proven resources: 71 billion tons in 2012 according to the USGS
  • Annual production: 191 million ton (0.19 billions according to the USGS) were extracted in 2011
  • Reserves: 340 years according to the Australian Institute for Sustainable Futures.
  • The cellular metabolism of all life requires phosphorus; humans need between 700 and 1250 milligrams (mg) a day. Traditional farming practices used human and animal excrement as fertiliser for plants, but today most of this excrement is not collected and ends up in watercourses and in the sea. This forces the use of phosphorus from fossil excrements (old guano) or from minerals. It seems that 6 056 kg of phosphorus are introduced every second (191 millions of tons every year); this could lead to a peak production by 2030, and then to a phosphate shortage, or worse, a large-scale famine.
  • Helium
  • Use: scientific research
  • Proven resources: 4.2 billion m3
  • Annual production: 180 million m3
  • Reserves: 23 years.
  • So light that part of it escapes into space, this element with the lowest boiling temperature is needed for scientific research and large-scale aerospace programs.
  • Dysprosium and neodymium
  • Use: high performance magnets
  • Annual production: 20,000 tons in total.
  • Transforms mechanical into electrical energy; either in a power station (nuclear or fossil fuel) or in a wind turbine. The need for these metals is enormous.
  • Rhenium
  • Use: aerospace, fighter aircraft, airliners
  • Proven resources: 2.5 million tons
  • Annual production: 50 tons
  • Reserves: 50 years
  • The most difficult metal to obtain in the world. It is essential because it allows turbojets to resist the highest temperatures.
  • Uranium
  • use: energy production
  • Proven resources: 2.5 million tons.
  • Annual production: 54,000 tons.
  • Reserves: 46 years
  • Used in the nuclear industry, it has a global geopolitical role. It is not renewable and will no longer be available one day.
  • Rhodium and platinum
  • Use: catalysis, jewelry
  • Proven resources: 3,000 and 30,000 tons respectively.
  • Annual production: 30 and 200 tons respectively.
  • Reserves: in the range of 100 years.
  • Essential to the transport sector, these metals allow lower vehicle carbon emissions and are also used as catalysts for hydrogen-powered vehicles.
  • Gold
  • use: electronics, jewelry
  • Proven resources: 51,000 tons.
  • Annual production: 2,500 tons,
  • Reserves: 20 years
  • The most-desired metal in the world. It has more symbolic value more than real utility.
  • Indium
  • use: electronics, energy
  • Proven resources: 640 tons
  • Annual production: 11 tons.
  • Reserves: 17 years.
  • Used in touch screens and solar photovoltaic panels.
  • Combined with tin and oxygen, becomes transparent and electrically conductive (see indium tin oxide)
  • Combined with selenium, it is an opaque material and a good light collector.
  • Zinc
  • Use: alloys
  • Proven resources: 250 million tons.
  • Annual production: 12 million tons.
  • Reserves: 20 years.
  • prevents steel from corroding.
  • Technetium-99 and helium-3
  • Use: medical imaging, scientific research, defense.
  • Proven resources: none
  • Annual production: artificially produced
  • Reserves: -
  • Technetium-99 is used in cancer diagnostics and against cardiovascular diseases. Only produced in five reactors in the world which are all in an end-of-life status. Concerning helium-3, the planet Earth only contains 3.5 kilograms (7.7 lb) in total. It is used in thermonuclear weapons
  • Silver
  • Use: electronics, jewelry
  • Proven resources: 300,000 tons.
  • Annual production average: 21,000 tons.
  • Reserves: 13 years (in 2015).
  • Germanium
  • Essential in optical fiber.
  • Beryllium
  • Essential to nuclear reactors.
  • Tritium
  • Use: H-bombs.
  • Tungsten
  • Use: weapons, metallurgy
  • Gallium
  • Use: increases the efficiency of solar panels but is hard to recycle.
  • Tantalum
  • Use: metal with a high chemical resistance and used for heat protection.
  • Niobium
  • Use: improves the resistance of steel used in oil pipelines.
  • References

    Critical mineral raw materials Wikipedia

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