Researchers Identify New Methods for Ethically Resourcing Raw Materials

Methods for predicting the social and environmental cost of resourcing new deposits of rare earth minerals employed in the production of mobile phones, electric vehicles and wind turbines have been identified by researchers from the Camborne School of Mines.

A Tesla 3, which utilises rare earth elements Credit: University of Exeter

The team is introducing groundbreaking techniques in order to create the equivalent of a ‘Fairtrade’ model for sustainably and ethically resourcing raw materials that are vital in the manufacturing of next generation technologies.

In the research, the team points out the fundamental role that geoscientists will be able to play in producing ‘life cycle assessment techniques” for prospective new deposits of rare earth elements, in order to meet the growing global demand.

The research has been published in the journal, Elements.

It is important that we understand the environmental costs of generating these rare earths so that we can 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.

Robert Pell, PhD student at the Camborne School of Mines and co-author on the paper

The manufacture of new technologies is making use of an extensive range of elements greater than ever before, and a number of these are of extreme high-quality, used in tiny quantities and mined from just a few sources. However, it is nearly impossible for consumers buying computers, cars or phones to check whether they have responsible supply chains right back to the source of the raw materials.

The standard ‘Fairtrade’ and responsibly sourced schemes, mostly used for tea, bananas, coffee and jewelry are hard to apply to mining due to the complex supply chains linked with the raw materials.  But, geoscientists have the unique understanding into this area, and also have to potential to measure social and environmental impacts associated with the processing and mining and of these raw materials.

Geologists play a vital role in defining the amount of rock needed for producing the desired amount of raw material, and they can also provide crucial environmental information that includes radioactivity of the rocks being extracted. Mineral processors and metallurgists provide data on energy requirements for both extracting and processing these raw materials. Chemists, such as French co-author, Alain Rollat, probably have the most complicated task, of splitting the rare earth elements from each other, ready for the subsequent stage of manufacturing.

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 more likely to be interested in just one or two high profile issues, such as radioactivity or conflict minerals.

Frances Wall, Professor of Applied Mineralogy

The paper is part of a thematic set on Mineral Resources and Sustainability published this month in Elements.  Funding of the University of Exeter took place as part of the NERC SoS RARE project.

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