Rare earth elements mining

Future supply of rare earth elements at risk experts say

Political and economic factors could lead to a shortage of strategic minerals and rare earth elements, engineers argue.

Edward Bickham, senior consultant within the extractive sector, and Professor Jan Cilliers of Imperial College London, argued that the quantity of resource of minerals and rare earth metals was not an issue, however there was always a risk to the supply due to national frictions or event conflicts.

The experts were speaking at a debate organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering last week on the factors that could disrupt the supply of these strategic elements, commonplace in devices such as smartphones.

"These strategic minerals are essential to the functioning of society because of their widespread use in manufacturing, energy production, communications and more," said the Academy's Senior Vice President and event chairman Professor Sir William Wakeham. 

"The price and supply of many strategic minerals have come under pressure as the growth of emerging economies accelerates and the global population crosses the seven billion mark."

Bickham and Cilliers said that China had a strategic hold over the world's mineral supply which could affect the West, and that a reduction in supply could increase prices and change behaviour.

However Andrew Bloodworth of British Geological Survey, and Jan Lewis, president of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining argued that reserves of minerals and rare earth metals were plentiful in operational and mothballed mines, and that scaremongering over shortages had been around for at least two centuries and so far proved unfounded.

Skills within the mining sector were also raised, with the US and Australia producing just 40 mineral engineering graduates each a year compared to an estimated 3,000 from China.

The sum of skilled Western workers was described as a talent 'puddle' rather than a talent pool, and the skills shortage would continue to cause concern as the number of minerals being used has grown rapidly and these rely on unique processes and require specialist knowledge, such as the safe disposal of radioactive wastes.

The group discussed possible solutions including increasing salaries to attract talent, legislation by governments to change consumer and supplier behaviours and even to produce a sitcom to make mineral mining more popular with young people.

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