By Kerry Lotzof
First published 7 October 2020
The world's rarest mineral resources are in your hands.
A growing demand for electronic devices is putting pressure on supply chains and the planet. Our insatiable appetite for the latest technology comes at a price.
Prof Richard Herrington, Head of Earth Sciences at the Museum, invites us all to take a critical look at the gadgets we love and the vital materials they are made of.
'I think most people do not have any idea of the range and scale of metals and minerals that are used to make electronics,' says Richard. 'We've found use for them in computers, cars and all kinds of machinery - it's technology that we didn't have 15 or 20 years ago that we now take for granted.
'It is really important that we all understand where the raw materials come from, that metals and minerals are in the Earth where nature puts them. They don't come from a factory, and the supply is dispersed around the world where sometimes business and environmental practices aren't the best.'
Richard hopes that by learning where these valuable resources come from and how they are being extracted, people will place more value on what they already have, understand the environmental (and human) cost of cheap electronics, reduce their own waste and make choices that in turn force manufacturers to lift their standards.
Metals and minerals for green technologies
We don't just need these materials for our phones. We also need them to make technology that will help the Earth become a cleaner, greener place.
Richard says, 'We all acknowledge that we need to stop burning carbon for our energy. Alternatives like wind turbines, solar panels, hydro-electric dams and electric cars call for new technologies that also demand metals and other materials.'
Green technologies such as electric vehicles and wind turbines require metals for wiring, batteries and components including copper, lithium, cobalt, manganese, nickel and graphite. Solar panels will also call for metals such as tellurium and silicon for the solar cells that turn sunlight into electricity.
'We are expanding the amounts that we need of these materials, and there is still a question around whether we can get enough in time to implement the changes we've promised for the planet.'
Which minerals are in your mobile?
What is copper used for? Copper is a vital element used to produce wiring for all kinds of electronics. It conducts electricity and heat very efficiently, and it is needed in larger amounts than any other metal for mobile phone componentry. There will have to be an increase in its supply to meet the world's growing demand for electronics.
Where does copper come from? Copper is most frequently sourced from open-cut mines. Chile is the world's largest supplier of copper, but the metal is also produced elsewhere North and South America.
What is tellurium used for? Adding tellurium to other metals improves their strength and hardness and reduces corrosion. It can also be used for tinting glass and is vital to the manufacture of solar panels.
Where does tellurium come from? Tellurium is found in copper ore and most often extracted as a by-product of copper processing. Tellurium is mined in Japan and Canada.
What is lithium used for? Lithium is essential to the production of cathodes in lithium-ion batteries.
Where does lithium come from? Lithium is found in rock and salt lakes called salars, which are mined or pumped out before chemical extraction. Leading producers include Australia, Chile, Argentina and China. Demand for lithium is expected to expand rapidly as demand grows for environmentally friendly technologies.
What is cobalt used for? Cobalt is important for rechargeable batteries, circuits and a range of other electrical components. Coating microscopic copper wires with cobalt makes microchips more reliable.
Where does cobalt come from? More than half of the world's cobalt supply comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Richard says, 'Most of the production that takes place in the Democratic Republic of Congo is done properly, but there is still a potential for cobalt mining from child labour coming into the supply chain and the market should be making sure that doesn't happen.'
He believes we need to make sure the supply of cobalt is spread more evenly around other parts of the world so that we don't have such enormous reliance on one country.
What is manganese used for? Used extensively for television circuit boards and dry-cell batteries, manganese can make electronics more resilient. The next generation of rechargeable batteries is likely to use more manganese.
Where does manganese come from? Although manganese is abundant in the Earth's crust, 80% of the world's supply comes from South Africa. It is also mined in Australia, China, India, Ukraine, Brazil and Gabon.
What is tungsten used for? Tungsten is a highly dense and durable metal, four times harder than titanium. It is used as a weight in a phone's vibrator.
Where does tungsten come from? A staggering 75% of the world's tungsten comes from China. Other producers include North America, South Korea, Bolivia, Russia and Portugal. Tungsten is extracted from the minerals wolframite and scheelite.
It's time to look at our supply of raw materials
Our globalised marketplace keeps prices relatively low, but at a cost: a vulnerable supply chain and, in some cases, reliance on countries with histories of exploitative workplace practices and child labour.
'What we really don't want to happen is that the metals and materials we use come from only one place or only one company in the world,' Richard explains. 'Narrow supply opens up the possibility of commercial and geographical monopolies being created.
'In the past we have had problems with monopolies inflating prices and there is the risk as well, given where they might be coming from, that these mining organisations aren't following best practice.'
According to Richard, the UK's supply of lithium is currently stable but the cobalt supply is more uncertain.
'At the moment, 30% of our lithium comes from South America including Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, and another third comes from Australia, with the rest made up by a few other suppliers.
'Lithium is distributed among various countries, so the supply of that is quite diverse and secure. However, around 70% of cobalt comes from a single source: The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country that has had its share of political problems and evidence of some child labour, which as consumers we should be concerned about.'
Should we bring more primary production home?
Richard believes there is huge potential in looking closer to home for our mineral supply.
He says, 'When you can source minerals locally, you know the supply chain is short and can be better controlled. The risk of unethical practices drop and you can cut down on the environmental and other costs of transportation.
'Unfortunately, we have a tendency to be "NIMBYs" when it comes to mining, saying things are okay if it's "not in my back yard" - but isn't exporting the problem worse?
'I think we can take the example from agriculture. People are happy eating food that is produced locally and I think we should be equally conscious about how we source raw materials from Earth.'
Towards a circular economy
Richard believes we should be building a circular economy that minimises or eliminates waste by returning precious resources into the production cycle.
'Rather than creating things like mobile phones, using them for a while and putting them in a drawer when we buy a new one, we have an obligation not to lose track of where those precious materials are, and to ensure we are making products in forms that can be readily recycled,' Richard says.
'We should not be wasting resources. We should make sure that once we pull them out of the ground we look after them and use and reuse them.'
We hope you enjoyed this article…
... or that it helped you learn something new. Now we're wondering if you can help us.
Every year, more people are reading our articles to learn about the challenges facing the natural world. Our future depends on nature, but we are not doing enough to protect our life support system. Pollution has caused toxic air in our cities, and farming and logging have wreaked havoc on our forests. Climate change is creating deserts and dead zones, and hunting is driving many species to the brink of extinction. This is the first time in Earth's history that a single species - humanity - has brought such disaster upon the natural world. But if we don't look after nature, nature can't look after us. We must act on scientific evidence, we must act together, and we must act now.
For many, the Natural History Museum is a place that inspires learning, gives purpose and provides hope. People tell us they 'still get shivers walking through the front door', and thank us for inspiring the next generation of scientists. To reverse the damage we've done and protect the future, we need the knowledge that comes from scientific discovery. Understanding and protecting life on our planet is the greatestscientific challenge of our age. And you can help.
We are a charity and we rely on your support. No matter the size, every gift to the Museum is critical to our 300 scientists' work in understanding and protecting the natural world. From as little as £2, you can help us create a future where both people and the planet thrive. Thank you.