The Future Of Metals
ASIAN Geographic|AG 05/2020 144
Today, metals are found in our most sophisticated technological innovations and have become essential elements in maintaining our high-tech way of life
Elizabeth Lim

During the Metal Ages, they revolutionised the living standards of early societies, from farm tools to weapons. Today, metals are found in our most sophisticated technological innovations and have become essential elements in maintaining our high-tech way of life. But our metal reserves are dwindling, and we are faced with the challenge of ensuring that future generations will continue to reap the benefits of these precious resources.

Formed billions of years ago, metals are society’s lifeline. To replenish them and keep up with our growing and modernising world, there is a need to mine for more. Certain primary metals such as aluminium, copper and iron can be mined naturally. Others are produced as a byproduct of mining other metals: Cobalt, which is primarily used in lithium-ion batteries, is a by-product of copper and nickel mining, while selenium, a semiconductor with applications in electronics, is extracted from the refining of copper through the process of electrolysis.

Quantifying the amount of metal ore left in the world can be difficult, but through reports on the amount of metal reserves in the world, it is possible to get an estimate. For example, it is estimated that there are only 830 million tonnes of copper left in our reserves, enough to last only around 30 years given the current annual copper demand of about 28 million tonnes. Even though the metal is regarded as being fully sustainable, we have perhaps 200 years of resources left, if we include reserves, and both discovered and predicted deposits.

The Mess LeftBehind

When metals are mined and manufactured, large amounts of waste result, and while some forms of waste don’t harm the environment, others pose a significant risk not just to the environment but to human health. The waste occurs at various stages, from the exploration drilling project to the last processed material, and depending on how the materials are mined, the type of waste produced will vary. The three types of waste produced in the largest volumes are rock, tailings (ore residue) and mine water. Some mining makes use of toxic chemicals such as cyanide during the processing stage as well, and altough this accounts for only a small amount of waste, the risks and dangers are substantial.

FACT BOX

• WASTE ROCK:

Along with the ore, mining produces waste rock that does not have sufficient metal concentration for economic recovery. The composition of the waste rock will dictate the elements released into the environment

• TAILINGS:

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