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Mining and processing ore can have considerable impact on the environment. Surface mines can create enormous pits (see Figure Open Pit Mine ) in the ground as well as large piles of overburden and tailings that need to be reclaimed , i.e., restored to a useful landscape. Since 1977 surface mines in U.S. are required to be reclaimed, and commonly reclamation is relatively well done in this country. Unfortunately, surface mine reclamation is not done everywhere, especially in underdeveloped countries, due to lack of regulations or lax enforcement of regulations. Unreclaimed surface mines and active surface mines can be major sources of water and sediment pollution. Metallic ore minerals (e.g., copper, lead, zinc, mercury, and silver) commonly include abundant sulfide, and many metallic ore deposits contain abundant pyrite (iron sulfide). The sulfide in these minerals oxidizes quickly when exposed to air at the surface producing sulfuric acid, called acid mine drainage    . As a result streams, ponds, and soil water contaminated with this drainage can be highly acidic, reaching pH values of zero or less (see Figure Acid Mine Drainage)! The acidic water can leach heavy metals such as nickel, copper, lead, arsenic, aluminum, and manganese from mine tailings and slag. The acidic contaminated water can be highly toxic to the ecosystem. Plants usually will not regrow in such acidic soil water, and therefore soil erosion rates skyrocket due to the persistence of bare, unvegetated surfaces. With a smaller amount of tailings and no overburden, underground mines usually are much easier to reclaim, and they produce much less acid mine drainage. The major environmental problem with underground mining is the hazardous working environment for miners primarily caused by cave-ins and lung disease due to prolonged inhalation of dust particles. Underground cave-ins also can damage the surface from subsidence. Smelting can be a major source of air pollution, especially SO 2 gas. The case history below examines the environmental impact of mining and processing gold ore.

photograph of Acid Mine Drainage
Acid Mine Drainage The water in Rio Tinto River, Spain is highly acidic (pH = ~2) and the orange color is from iron in the water. A location along this river has been mined beginning some 5,000 years ago primarily for copper and more recently for silver and gold. Source: Sean Mack of NASA via Wikimedia Commons

Sustainable solutions to the mineral crisis?

Providing sustainable solutions to the problem of a dwindling supply of a nonrenewable resource such as minerals seems contradictory. Nevertheless, it is extremely important to consider strategies that move towards sustainability even if true sustainability is not possible for most minerals. The general approach towards mineral sustainability should include mineral conservation    at the top of the list. We also need to maximize exploration for new mineral resources while at the same time we minimize the environmental impact of mineral mining and processing .

Conservation of mineral resources includes improved efficiency, substitution, and the 3 Rs of sustainability, reduce, reuse, and recycle. Improved efficiency applies to all features of mineral use including mining, processing, and creation of mineral products. Substituting a rare nonrenewable resource with either a more abundant nonrenewable resource or a renewable resource can help. Examples include substituting glass fiber optic cables for copper in telephone wires and wood for aluminum in construction. Reducing global demand for mineral resources will be a challenge, considering projections of continuing population growth and the rapid economic growth of very large countries such as China, India, and Brazil. Historically economic growth is intimately tied to increased mineral consumption, and therefore it will be difficult for those rapidly developing countries to decrease their future demand for minerals. In theory, it should be easier for countries with a high mineral consumption rate such as the U.S. to reduce their demand for minerals but it will take a significant change in mindset to accomplish that. Technology can help some with some avenues to reducing mineral consumption. For example, digital cameras have virtually eliminated the photographic demand for silver, which is used for film development. Using stronger and more durable alloys of steel can translate to fewer construction materials needed. Examples of natural resource reuse include everything at an antique store and yard sale. Recycling can extend the lifetime of mineral reserves, especially metals. Recycling is easiest for pure metals such as copper pipes and aluminum cans, but much harder for alloys (mixtures of metals) and complex manufactured goods, such as computers. Many nonmetals cannot be recycled; examples include road salt and fertilizer. Recycling is easier for a wealthy country because there are more financial resources to use for recycling and more goods to recycle. Additional significant benefits of mineral resource conservation are less pollution and environmental degradation from new mineral mining and processing as well as reductions in energy use and waste production.

Because demand for new minerals will likely increase in the future, we must continue to search for new minerals, even though we probably have already found many of the “easy” targets, i.e., high-grade ore deposits close to the surface and in convenient locations. To find more difficult ore targets, we will need to apply many technologies including geophysical methods (seismic, gravity, magnetic, and electrical measurements, as well as remote sensing, which uses satellite-based measurements of electromagnetic radiation from Earth’s surface), geochemical methods (looking for chemical enrichments in soil, water, air, and plants), and geological information including knowledge of plate tectonics theory. We also may need to consider exploring and mining unconventional areas such as continental margins (submerged edges of continents), the ocean floor (where there are large deposits of manganese ore and other metals in rocks called manganese nodules), and oceanic ridges (undersea mountains that have copper, zinc, and lead ore bodies).

Finally, we need to explore for, mine, and process new minerals while minimizing pollution and other environmental impacts. Regulations and good engineering practices are necessary to ensure adequate mine reclamation and pollution reduction, including acid mine drainage. The emerging field of biotechnology may provide some sustainable solutions to metal extraction. Specific methods include biooxidation (microbial enrichment of metals in a solid phase), bioleaching (microbial dissolution of metals), biosorption (attachment of metals to cells), and genetic engineering of microbes (creating microorganisms specialized in extracting metal from ore).

Review questions

Name some important ways mineral resources are used. Why are they important to society?

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What are the major environmental issues associated with mineral resources?

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What should society learn from the case history of gold?

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Why is society facing a crisis involving mineral supply and how might we work to solve it?

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Clugston, C. (2010) Increasing Global Nonrenewable Natural Resource Scarcity - An Analysis, The Oil Drum. Retrieved from (External Link)

Craig J, Vaughan D, and Skinner B (2011) Earth Resources and the Environment (4th ed.). Pearson Prentice Hall, p. 92

Questions & Answers

What fields keep nano created devices from performing or assimulating ? Magnetic fields ? Are do they assimilate ?
Stoney Reply
why we need to study biomolecules, molecular biology in nanotechnology?
Adin Reply
yes I'm doing my masters in nanotechnology, we are being studying all these domains as well..
what school?
biomolecules are e building blocks of every organics and inorganic materials.
anyone know any internet site where one can find nanotechnology papers?
Damian Reply
sciencedirect big data base
Introduction about quantum dots in nanotechnology
Praveena Reply
what does nano mean?
Anassong Reply
nano basically means 10^(-9). nanometer is a unit to measure length.
do you think it's worthwhile in the long term to study the effects and possibilities of nanotechnology on viral treatment?
Damian Reply
absolutely yes
how to know photocatalytic properties of tio2 nanoparticles...what to do now
Akash Reply
it is a goid question and i want to know the answer as well
characteristics of micro business
for teaching engĺish at school how nano technology help us
Do somebody tell me a best nano engineering book for beginners?
s. Reply
there is no specific books for beginners but there is book called principle of nanotechnology
what is fullerene does it is used to make bukky balls
Devang Reply
are you nano engineer ?
fullerene is a bucky ball aka Carbon 60 molecule. It was name by the architect Fuller. He design the geodesic dome. it resembles a soccer ball.
what is the actual application of fullerenes nowadays?
That is a great question Damian. best way to answer that question is to Google it. there are hundreds of applications for buck minister fullerenes, from medical to aerospace. you can also find plenty of research papers that will give you great detail on the potential applications of fullerenes.
what is the Synthesis, properties,and applications of carbon nano chemistry
Abhijith Reply
Mostly, they use nano carbon for electronics and for materials to be strengthened.
is Bucky paper clear?
carbon nanotubes has various application in fuel cells membrane, current research on cancer drug,and in electronics MEMS and NEMS etc
so some one know about replacing silicon atom with phosphorous in semiconductors device?
s. Reply
Yeah, it is a pain to say the least. You basically have to heat the substarte up to around 1000 degrees celcius then pass phosphene gas over top of it, which is explosive and toxic by the way, under very low pressure.
Do you know which machine is used to that process?
how to fabricate graphene ink ?
for screen printed electrodes ?
What is lattice structure?
s. Reply
of graphene you mean?
or in general
in general
Graphene has a hexagonal structure
On having this app for quite a bit time, Haven't realised there's a chat room in it.
what is biological synthesis of nanoparticles
Sanket Reply
what's the easiest and fastest way to the synthesize AgNP?
Damian Reply
how did you get the value of 2000N.What calculations are needed to arrive at it
Smarajit Reply
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