Of all the minerals mined over the centuries, have any been forgotten or mined into extinction and, more importantly, is mankind in danger of running out of critical resources? Julian Turner talks to Dr Lawrence Meinert, deputy associate director for energy and minerals at the US Geological Survey.
In 1987, in the remote mining town of Ivigtût on the west coast of Greenland, an extinction event took place that went virtually unnoticed and unremarked upon outside of geological and mining circles.
Now abandoned, Ivigtût once contained the world’s largest known reserves of naturally occurring cryolite. First described in 1798, this rare mineral was primarily used in aluminium extraction, but also as an insecticide and pesticide, to make caustic soda and even to give fireworks a yellow colour.
And then in 1987 the mine simply ran out. Its demise is a reminder of how susceptible mineral supplies are to the dynamics of global demand, consumption and pricing, and the impact they have on mankind’s social and industrial evolution.
“Many mineral commodities have changed in importance over time,” says Dr Lawrence Meinert of the US Geological Survey (USGS). “In the Stone Age flint was extremely valuable, but obviously the need for flint arrowheads has diminished and thus the mining of flint has stopped. Similarly, the Romans prized salt very highly, but it’s centrality to the world’s economy is now much less than in the past.
“Conversely, the use of most metals has skyrocketed during the industrial age, with iron, copper and aluminium being mainstays of much of the world’s economy and infrastructure. Rare earth elements are much more important than they were 30 years ago and are indispensible in technologies such as smartphones, wind turbines and hybrid cars.
“Other changes have only recently started developing; for example, the expansion of the world’s electric car fleet promises to greatly increase the need for lithium. In a similar vein it is likely that future technologies will require other elements of the periodic table that are not widely used today.”
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