Thursday, 14 September 2017

High technology metals: Facts, Fiction and Recycling

Less than half a century ago the rare earth elements were classed as minor metals - who had even heard of neodymium, now essential in the production of powerful rare earth permanent magnets, used in wind turbines and many other applications? Lithium was essentially a curiosity, the third element in the Periodic Table, and the lightest metal. Now, of course it is in high demand for light, powerful batteries, and the increasing prevalence of electric cars (posting of 30 August) will increase the demand for this once minor metal.
The rare earths and lithium are primary mined, but some of the once minor metals, such as gallium, germanium and indium, which are essential for our modern way of life, are by-products of base metal mining.
Jens Gutzmer
The importance of all these metals cannot be overestimated, which is why we are looking forward to next years MEI Conference in Cape Town Developments in the Processing of the "Hi-Tech" Metals. We are also pleased to announce the first keynote speaker, Prof. Jens Gutzmer, the founding director of the Helmholtz Institute Freiberg for Resource Technology, and professor of economic geology and petrology at the Department of Mineralogy, TU Bergakademie Freiberg, Germany.
In a paper co-authored by Max Frenzel and MEI Consultant Markus Reuter, Jens will examine the number of expressions used to describe this group of commodities that are considered essential ingredients for technology development and economic prosperity. In some publications, these are referred to as “high technology metals”, in others they are named “strategic” or even “critical raw materials“. To add confusion the actual composition of this large and disjointed group of commodities is subject to on-going change – depending largely on perspective, technology and material development, geostrategic positioning and market status. Prof. Gutzmer will address reasons for the apparent confusion – and the inherent weakness of processes to identify “critical raw materials”. Furthermore, results of current efforts to quantify global resource potentials especially of by-product metals – many of which are regarded as “critical” - will be discussed.
Crucially, he will consider the role of recycling vs. primary production in the near- to mid-term supply of high technology metals. This aspect is vital as we have to get smarter at recovering and reusing the vast quantities that we have already extracted from the earth, rather than relying on continued pursuit of new reserves of ever poorer quality and at substantial environmental cost. Recycling of these critical elements, which are used in every smart phone, but in tiny quantities and often alloyed, is one of the great challenges facing mineral processing this century, and will also be a major topic at Sustainable Minerals '18 in Namibia.

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