Peak minerals

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Peak minerals marks the point in time when the largest production of a mineral will occur in an area, with production declining in subsequent years. While most mineral resources will not be exhausted in the near future, global extraction and production is becoming more challenging. [1] Miners have found ways over time to extract deeper and lower grade ores [2] with lower production costs. More than anything else, declining average ore grades are indicative of ongoing technological shifts that have enabled inclusion of more 'complex' processing – in social and environmental terms as well as economic – and structural changes in the minerals exploration industry [3] and these have been accompanied by significant increases in identified Mineral Reserves. [4] [5]



The concept of peak minerals offers a useful model for representing the changing impacts associated with processing declining resource qualities in the lead up to, and following, peak mineral production in a particular region within a certain time-frame. [6]

Peak minerals provides an analytical framework within which the economic, social and environmental trajectories of a particular mining industry can be explored in relation to the continuing (and often increasing) production of mineral resources. It focuses consideration on the change in costs and impacts associated with processing easily accessible, lower cost ores before peak production of an individual mine or group of mines for a given mineral. It outlines how the economy might respond as processing becomes characterised by higher costs as the peak is approached and passed. Issues associated with the concept of peak minerals include:

Mining The extraction of valuable minerals or other geological materials from the earth

Mining is the extraction of valuable minerals or other geological materials from the earth, usually from an ore body, lode, vein, seam, reef or placer deposit. These deposits form a mineralized package that is of economic interest to the miner.

Mineral resource classification

Mineral resource classification is the classification of mineral resources based on an increasing level of geological knowledge and confidence. Mineral deposits can be classified as:

Mineral processing process of separating commercially valuable minerals from their ores

In the field of extractive metallurgy, mineral processing, also known as ore dressing, is the process of separating commercially valuable minerals from their ores.

Resource depletion and recoverability

Giurco et al. (2009) [8] indicate that the debate about how to analytically describe resource depletion is ongoing. Traditionally, a fixed stock paradigm has been applied, but Tilton and Lagos (2007) [9] suggest using an opportunity cost paradigm is better because the usable resource quantity is represented by price and the opportunity cost of using the resource. Unlike energy minerals such as coal or oil – or minerals used in a dissipative or metabolic fashion like phosphorus [10] – most non-energy minerals and metals are unlikely to run out. Metals are inherently recyclable and more readily recoverable from end uses where the metal is used in a pure form and not transformed or dissipated; in addition, metal ore is accessible at a range of different grades. So, although metals are not facing exhaustion, they are becoming more challenging to obtain in the quantities that society demands, and the energy, environmental and social cost of acquiring them could constrain future increases in production and usage. [11]

Resource depletion

Resource depletion is the consumption of a resource faster than it can be replenished. Natural resources are commonly divided between renewable resources and non-renewable resources. Use of either of these forms of resources beyond their rate of replacement is considered to be resource depletion. The value of a resource is a direct result of its availability in nature and the cost of extracting the resource, the more a resource is depleted the more the value of the resource increases. There are several types of resource depletion the most known being; Aquifer depletion, deforestation, mining for fossil fuels and minerals, pollution or contamination of resources, slash-and-burn agricultural practices, Soil erosion, and overconsumption, excessive or unnecessary use of resources.

In microeconomic theory, the opportunity cost, or alternative cost, of making a particular choice is the value of the most valuable choice out of those that were not taken. In other words, opportunity that will require sacrifices.

Metabolism The set of life-sustaining chemical transformations within the cells of organisms

Metabolism is the set of life-sustaining chemical reactions in organisms. The three main purposes of metabolism are: the conversion of food to energy to run cellular processes; the conversion of food/fuel to building blocks for proteins, lipids, nucleic acids, and some carbohydrates; and the elimination of nitrogenous wastes. These enzyme-catalyzed reactions allow organisms to grow and reproduce, maintain their structures, and respond to their environments..

Peak oil

Given increasing global population and rapidly growing consumption (especially in China and India), frameworks for the analysis of resource depletion can assist in developing appropriate responses. The most popular contemporary focus for resource depletion is oil (or petroleum) resources. In 1956, oil geologist M. King Hubbert famously predicted that conventional oil production from the lower 48 (mainland) states of the United States would peak by 1970 and then enter a terminal decline. [12] This model was accurate in predicting the peak (although the peak year was 1971). This phenomenon is now commonly called 'peak oil', with peak production curves known as Hubbert Curves.

M. King Hubbert American geoscientist

Marion King Hubbert was an American geologist and geophysicist. He worked at the Shell research lab in Houston, Texas. He made several important contributions to geology, geophysics, and petroleum geology, most notably the Hubbert curve and Hubbert peak theory, with important political ramifications. He was often referred to as "M. King Hubbert" or "King Hubbert".

Peak oil Point in time when the maximum rate of petroleum extraction is reached

Peak oil is the theorized point in time when the maximum rate of extraction of petroleum is reached, after which it is expected to enter terminal decline. Peak oil theory is based on the observed rise, peak, fall, and depletion of aggregate production rate in oil fields over time. It is often confused with oil depletion; however, whereas depletion refers to a period of falling reserves and supply, peak oil refers to the point of maximum production. The concept of peak oil is often credited to geologist M. King Hubbert whose 1956 paper first presented a formal theory.

The Hubbert curve is an approximation of the production rate of a resource over time. It is a symmetric logistic distribution curve, often confused with the "normal" gaussian function. It first appeared in "Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels," geologist M. King Hubbert's 1956 presentation to the American Petroleum Institute, as an idealized symmetric curve, during his tenure at the Shell Oil Company. It has gained a high degree of popularity in the scientific community for predicting the depletion of various natural resources. The curve is the main component of Hubbert peak theory, which has led to the rise of peak oil concerns. Basing his calculations on the peak of oil well discovery in 1948, Hubbert used his model in 1956 to create a curve which predicted that oil production in the contiguous United States would peak around 1970.

The concept of peak minerals is an extrapolation and extension of Hubbert's model of peak oil. Although widely cited for his predictions of peak oil, Hubbert intended to explore an appropriate response to the finite supply of oil, and framed this work within the context of increasing global population and rapidly growing consumption of oil.

In establishing the peak oil model, Hubbert was primarily focused on arguing that a planned transition was required to ensure future energy services.

World gold production has experienced multiple peaks due to new discoveries and new technologies. Many mineral resources have exhibited logistic Hubbert-type production trends in the past, but have transitioned to exponential growth during the last 10–15 years, precluding reliable estimates of reserves from within the framework of the logistic model. [13]

As extrapolating peak oil

Only limited substantive work is currently undertaken to examine how the concepts and assumptions of peak oil can be extrapolated so as to be applied to minerals in general. [14] [15] When extrapolating peak oil to account for peak minerals and then utilising this analytical 'peak framework' as a general model of resource exploitation, several factors must be taken into consideration:

In understanding how these factors are important for modelling peak minerals, it is important to consider assumptions concerning the modelling process, assumptions about production (particularly economic conditions), and the ability to make accurate estimates of resource quantity and quality and the potential of future exploration.

Cheap and easy in the past; costly and difficult in future

Peak production poses a problem for resource rich countries like Australia, which have developed a comparative advantage in the global resources sector, which may diminish in the future. The costs of mining, once primarily reflected in economic terms, are increasingly being considered in social and environmental terms, although these are yet to meaningfully inform long-term decision-making in the sector. Such consideration is particularly important if the industry is seeking to operate in a socially, environmentally and economically sustainable manner into the next 30–50 years. [8]

Benefits from dependence on the resource sector

In 2008–09, minerals and fuel exports made up around 56% of Australia’s total exports. Consequently, minerals play a major role in Australia’s capacity to participate in international trade and contribute to the international strength of its currency. [16] Whether this situation contributes to Australia’s economic wealth or weakens its economic position is contested. While those supporting Australia’s reliance on minerals cite the theory of comparative advantage, opponents suggest a reliance on resources leads to issues associated with 'Dutch disease' (a decline in other sectors of the economy associated with natural resource exploitation) and ultimately the hypothesised ‘resource curse’.

Threats from dependence on the resource sector

Contrary to the theory of the comparative advantage, many mineral resource-rich countries are often outperformed by resource-poor countries. [17] This paradox, where natural resource abundance actually has a negative impact on the growth of the national economy is termed the resource curse. After an initial economic boost, brought on by the booming minerals economy, negative impacts linked to the boom surpass the positive, causing economic activity to fall below the pre-resource windfall level.

Mineral supply and demand

The economics of a commodity are generally determined by supply and demand. Mineral supply and demand will change dramatically as all costs (economic, technological, social and environmental) associated with production, processing and transportation of minerals increases with falling ore grades. These costs will ultimately influence the ability of companies to supply commodities, and the ability of consumers to purchase them. It is likely that social and environmental issues will increasingly drive economic costs associated with supply and demand patterns. [18] [19] [20]

Economic scarcity as a constraint to mineral supply

As neither overall stocks nor future markets are known, most economists normally do not consider physical scarcity as a good indicator for the availability of a resource for society. [21] Economic scarcity has subsequently been introduced as a more valid approach to assess the supply of minerals. There are three commonly accepted measures for economic scarcity: the user costs associated with a resource, the real price of the resource, and the resource’s extraction costs. These measures have historically externalised impacts of a social or environmental nature – so might be considered inaccurate measures of economic scarcity given increased environmental or social scrutiny in the mining industry. Internalisation of these costs will contribute to economic scarcity by increasing the user costs, the real price of the resource, and its extraction costs.[ citation needed ]

Demand for minerals

While the ability to supply a commodity determines its availability as has been demonstrated, demand for minerals can also influence their availability. How minerals are used, where they are distributed and how, trade barriers, downstream use industries, substitution and recycling can potentially influence the demand for minerals, and ultimately their availability. While economists are cognisant of the role of demand as an availability driver, historically they have not considered factors besides depletion as having a long-term impact on mineral availability. [22]

Future production

There are a variety of indicators that show production is becoming more difficult and more expensive. Key environmental indicators that reflect increasingly expensive production are primarily associated with the decline in average ore grades of many minerals. [23] This has consequences in mineral exploration, for mine depth, the energy intensity of mining, and the increasing quantity of waste rock.

Adjusting to a higher energy intensity is challenging for the industry in light of peak oil and rising energy costs in a carbon constrained future.[ citation needed ]

Although new mineral deposits are still being discovered, and reserves are increasing for some minerals, these are of lower quality and are less accessible.[ citation needed ]

Social context

Different social issues must be addressed through time in relation to peak minerals at a national scale, and other issues manifest on the local scale.

As global mining companies seek to expand operations to access larger mining areas, competition with farmers for land and for scare water is becoming increasingly intense. [20] [24] Negative relationships with near neighbours influence companies' ability to establish and maintain a social license to operate within the community. [25]

Access to identified resources is becoming harder as questions are asked about the benefit from the regional economic development mining is reputed to bring.

See also

Related Research Articles

Natural resource Resources that exist without actions of humankind

Natural resources are resources that exist without actions of humankind. This includes all valued characteristics such as magnetic, gravitational, electrical properties and forces etc. On Earth it includes sunlight, atmosphere, water, land along with all vegetation, crops and animal life that naturally subsists upon or within the heretofore identified characteristics and substances.

Non-renewable resource a resource that does not renew itself at a sufficient rate for sustainable economic extraction in meaningful human timeframes

A non-renewable resource is a resource of economic value that cannot be readily replaced by natural means at a quick enough pace to keep up with consumption. An example is carbon-based fossil fuel. The original organic material, with the aid of heat and pressure, becomes a fuel such as oil or gas. Earth minerals and metal ores, fossil fuels and groundwater in certain aquifers are all considered non-renewable resources, though individual elements are always conserved.

Economic geology Science concerned with earth materials of economic value

Economic geology is concerned with earth materials that can be used for economic and/or industrial purposes. These materials include precious and base metals, nonmetallic minerals, construction-grade stone, petroleum minerals, coal, and water. Economic geology is a subdiscipline of the geosciences; according to Lindgren (1933) it is “the application of geology”. Today, it may be called the scientific study of the Earth’s sources of mineral raw materials and the practical application of the acquired knowledge. The term commonly refers to metallic mineral deposits and mineral resources. The techniques employed by other earth science disciplines might all be used to understand, describe, and exploit an ore deposit.

Exploitation of natural resources

The exploitation of natural resources is the use of natural resources for economic growth, sometimes with a negative connotation of accompanying environmental degradation. It started to emerge on an industrial scale in the 19th century as the extraction and processing of raw materials developed much further than it had in preindustrial areas. During the 20th century, energy consumption rapidly increased. Today, about 80% of the world’s energy consumption is sustained by the extraction of fossil fuels, which consists of oil, coal and gas. Another non-renewable resource that is exploited by humans is subsoil minerals such as precious metals that are mainly used in the production of industrial commodities. Intensive agriculture is an example of a mode of production that hinders many aspects of the natural environment, for example the degradation of forests in a terrestrial ecosystem and water pollution in an aquatic ecosystem. As the world population rises and economic growth occurs, the depletion of natural resources influenced by the unsustainable extraction of raw materials becomes an increasing concern.

Hubbert peak theory

The Hubbert peak theory says that for any given geographical area, from an individual oil-producing region to the planet as a whole, the rate of petroleum production tends to follow a bell-shaped curve. It is one of the primary theories on peak oil.

Heap leaching

Heap leaching is an industrial mining process used to extract precious metals, copper, uranium, and other compounds from ore using a series of chemical reactions that absorb specific minerals and re-separate them after their division from other earth materials. Similar to in situ mining, heap leach mining differs in that it places ore on a liner, then adds the chemicals via drip systems to the ore, whereas in situ mining lacks these liners and pulls pregnant solution up to obtain the minerals. Most mining companies favor the economic feasibility of heap leaching, considering that heap leaching is a better alternative to conventional processing methods such as such as flotation, agitation, and vat leaching.

According to M. King Hubbert's Hubbert peak theory, peak gas is the point in time at which the maximum global natural gas production rate will be reached, after which the rate of production will enter its terminal decline. Natural gas is a fossil fuel formed from plant matter over the course of millions of years. It is a finite resource and thus considered to be a non-renewable energy source.

Peak phosphorus Point in time of the maximum phosphorus production

Peak phosphorus is a concept to describe the point in time when humanity reaches the maximum global production rate of phosphorus as an industrial and commercial raw material. The term is used in an equivalent way to the better-known term peak oil. The issue was raised as a debate on whether a "peak phosphorus" was imminent or not around 2010, but was largely dismissed after USGS and other organizations increased the world estimates on available phosphorus resources.

Gavin Mudd Australian academic

Gavin M. Mudd is an Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental Engineering at RMIT University, Australia. He was awarded a Ph.D. in environmental engineering in 2001, from the Victoria University of Technology. Mudd's research interests include environmental impacts, management of mine wastes, acid mine drainage, sustainability frameworks, life cycle assessment modelling and mine rehabilitation.

Predicting the timing of peak oil

Peak oil is the point at which oil production, sometimes including unconventional oil sources, hits its maximum. Predicting the timing of peak oil involves estimation of future production from existing oil fields as well as future discoveries. The most influential production model is Hubbert peak theory, first proposed in the 1950s. The effect of peak oil on the world economy remains controversial.

Peak uranium is the point in time that the maximum global uranium production rate is reached. After that peak, according to Hubbert peak theory, the rate of production enters a terminal decline. While uranium is used in nuclear weapons, its primary use is for energy generation via nuclear fission of the uranium-235 isotope in a nuclear power reactor. Each kilogram of uranium-235 fissioned releases the energy equivalent of millions of times its mass in chemical reactants, as much energy as 2700 tons of coal, but uranium-235 is only 0.7% of the mass of natural uranium. Uranium-235 is a finite non-renewable resource. Some have wildly speculated, using technology that does not yet exist, that future advances in breeder reactor technology could allow the current reserves of uranium to provide power for humanity for billions of years. As such technology does not exist the idea that nuclear power can be considered sustainable energy is more science fiction than science. Consequently, in 2010 the International Panel on Fissile Materials said "After six decades and the expenditure of the equivalent of tens of billions of dollars, the promise of breeder reactors remains largely unfulfilled and efforts to commercialize them have been steadily cut back in most countries."

Peak copper Point of maximum global copper production

Peak copper is the point in time at which the maximum global copper production rate is reached. Since copper is a finite resource, at some point in the future new production from mining will diminish, and at some earlier time production will reach a maximum. When this will occur is a matter of dispute. Unlike fossil fuels, copper is scrapped and reused and it has been estimated that at least 80% of all copper ever mined is still available. Copper is among the most important industrial metals, valued for its heat and electrical conductivities and malleability. Copper is used in electrical power cables, data cables, electrical equipment, cooling and refrigeration tubing, heat exchangers, brass casing small arms ammunition, water pipes, and jewellery.

Natural resource economics

Natural resource economics deals with the supply, demand, and allocation of the Earth's natural resources. One main objective of natural resource economics is to better understand the role of natural resources in the economy in order to develop more sustainable methods of managing those resources to ensure their availability to future generations. Resource economists study interactions between economic and natural systems, with the goal of developing a sustainable and efficient economy.

Sustainability measurement is the quantitative basis for the informed management of sustainability. The metrics used for the measurement of sustainability are still evolving: they include indicators, benchmarks, audits, indexes and accounting, as well as assessment, appraisal and other reporting systems. They are applied over a wide range of spatial and temporal scales.

Post Carbon Institute (PCI) is a think tank which provides information and analysis on climate change, energy scarcity, and other issues related to sustainability and long term community resilience. Its Fellows specialize in various fields related to the organization's mission, such as fossil fuels, renewable energy, food, water, and population. Post Carbon is incorporated as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and is based in Corvallis, Oregon, United States.

Material criticality

Material criticality is the determination of which materials that flow through an industry or economy are most important to the production process. It is a sub-category within the field of material flow analysis (MFA), which is a method to quantitatively analyze the flows of materials used for industrial production in an industry or economy. MFA is a useful tool to assess what impacts materials used in the industrial process have and how efficiently a given process uses them.


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