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The importance of minerals for a sustainable future

5 min read / January 6, 2022 / Komatsu Staff Writer

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Recent events have amplified the undeniable reality facing our planet — climate change is impacting the global community in ways scientists are still trying to understand fully. From extreme flooding in Sudan to depleting sea ice and other extreme weather-related events, every business sector is being impacted, including mining.

And while the finger has often been pointed at traditional mining operations as being a significant contributor to this phenomenon, the emergence of renewable and clean energy technologies has the potential to flip the script. Today, mining operations have an opportunity to provide the important minerals essential for renewable and clean technologies to work.

Meeting the soaring demand for sustainable future minerals

The importance of minerals will continue to gain momentum. According to the World Bank, the need for critical minerals used for renewable and clean energy technologies will increase by 500% by 2050. The energy industry and many related sectors — such as automotive — will need increasing amounts to transition to power that may help offset the significant impact of climate change.

The U.S. Geological Survey recently identified minerals essential to three fundamental needs of renewable energy technologies — mainly solar panels and wind turbines, along with the batteries that help power these products.

  • Solar panels: Photovoltaic cells are the critical component of solar panels and rely on key minerals. In all, 35 mineral commodities are needed for solar panels. However, arsenic, gallium, germanium, indium, and tellurium are the top five.
  • Wind turbines: Wind farms are increasingly dotting the landscape, and some of the essential minerals needed for their manufacturing include aluminum and rare earth minerals, which are key to the smaller, lightweight generators in these structures.
  • Batteries: You may equate batteries to clean energy, such as electric cars. But they are just as vital to storing renewable energy when wind or sun are waning. Batteries allow the storage of excess power from wind turbines and solar panels for future use. Essential minerals include cobalt, graphite, lithium and manganese.

On the clean energy front, electric cars, trucks, buses and other forms of electric-powered transportation rely on batteries manufactured with the same elements described above. Small amounts of precious metals, such as gold and silver, are used in the circuit boards (also used in today’s fossil fuel vehicles). Of course, aluminum is also needed for all vehicles nowadays.

Opportunities in mining that can help fight climate change

With an understanding of the importance of minerals for a sustainable future, it’s worth exploring how mining can help meet the demand for these essential minerals through technology, data, a community-focused approach and new frontiers in mining.

Leveraging smart mining and data analytics: Heavy reliance on smart mining technologies, strategies and tactics— which also includes data analytics — is critical in the mining industry’s role in securing a sustainable future. In general, smart mining leverages the latest and greatest digital technologies — automation, electrification and batteries, “internet of things,” machine learning, GPS, drones, artificial intelligence, data analytics software and more — to extract minerals.

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Smart mining offers substantial operational advantages:

  • Smarter planning of new mines using advanced technologies and geological data that helps engineers maximize every site’s full potential for responsible extraction of minerals
  • Electrification of a mining fleet may deliver greater performance than fossil-fuel machines for potential productivity gains (along with the zero emission benefits)
  • Automation of machines and data processes offers substantial efficiencies in extracting, hauling and processing more of the essential minerals we need for a sustainable future
  • Fleet connectivity that helps mines configure optimum haulage routes to use less energy, keeps their machines in top shape through proactive maintenance to use the same equipment longer and enables efficient teleremote capabilities for increased safety
  • Improved real-time decision-making on a variety of important operational processes through data insights and machine connectivity

Bottom line, smart mining offers mines the opportunity to implement vastly more efficient, productive, and safer operations than traditional methods — so more of the minerals the planet needs are extracted in less time and with fewer resources.


Attracting mining’s future workforce

A survey by the Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration showed that enrollment in U.S. mining engineering programs dropped 46% between 2015 and 2020. And, according to Mercer, more than 50% of mining personnel are past the age of 45, with 20% of those over 60. An associated opportunity presented by smart mining and data technologies is the potential to entice a generation of workers who live and breathe technology. With the younger workforce focused on the environment, demonstrating a commitment to sustainability through smart mining can help attract talent.


Helping developing countries mine more minerals: While not a direct driver of productivity, it’s easy to draw the line between solid collaboration with developing countries rich in these valuable minerals and meeting the worldwide demand in developed nations. A key component of any partnership between local entities and communities and mining companies is a concerted effort to ensure extraction operations are protected and enriched by these mining operations. Any efforts to help resource-rich developing regions through scaled up technical resources and investments is a win-win, resulting in greater local prosperity and more minerals to meet global demand.

Deep sea mining: For several decades now, deep sea mining has been touted as the new frontier in mineral extraction. While it’s taken a long time for technology to catch up to the aspirations, some say that we may be on the cusp of actually making deep sea mining viable and widely used on a commercial scale.

Seabeds are rich in minerals, including those detailed here that are so vital to powering our low-carbon future. Renewable energy minerals like nickel, cobalt, copper, manganese and more are plentiful in three different types of seabeds. Some of these minerals are present in potato-sized, black and lumpy nodules on seafloor surfaces that can be “scooped up” with minimal impact to the undersea environment. But minerals like cobalt are up to four kilometers below seafloor surfaces, making them much harder to mine.

While the sea presents an opportunity to meet the tremendous demand for renewable and clean energy technologies, there is also deep concern for the impact on fragile marine habitats and precious ocean ecosystems. So, although deep sea mining has exceptional potential in helping our planet fight climate change, mining operations that delve into these waters must be as vigilant as land-based mining efforts in ensuring socially responsible and sustainable execution.

Shaping the future of mining

As mining seeks to pivot to meet the enormous demand for minerals that will drive greater clean and renewable energy use, mine operations can effectively meet that demand by unlocking the potential of smart mining, data analytics, electrification, automation and other powerful technologies.

The industry has a unique opportunity to provide the minerals for greener energy in a socially responsible and sustainable way. Mining’s ability to join forces with other business sectors committed to fighting climate change will not only shape the future of our industry, but the entire planet.