Some scientists and journalists, and many members of the general public, have been led to believe that the world is rapidly running out of the metals on which our modern society is based. Advocates of the peak metal concept have predicted for many decades that increasing consumption will soon lead to exhaustion of mineral resources. Yet, despite ever-increasing production and consumption, supplies of minerals have continued to meet the needs of industry and society, and lifetimes of reserves remain similar to what they were 30–40 years ago.
In this volume, we discuss the reasons for this apparent paradox using our broad experience and expertise on both academic and industrial sides of the minerals sector. Many misconceptions arise from flawed estimates of the size of global mineral resources which stem from a lack of understanding of the critical difference between reserves and resources. Some authors use quoted reserves – the amount of metal proven to exist and to be economic for mining at present – when predicting imminent shortages. Resources – the amount that may be accessible in the upper few kilometres of the crust – are far larger.
Over the last 150 years, improved technologies, economies of scale and increased efficiency have combined to reduce costs hence allowing lower-grade ore to be mined economically. The net result is that the long-term inflation-adjusted price of most metals has decreased more or less in parallel with increasing production, a second apparent paradox that frequently is not well understood.
Using copper as the principal example and other metals as appropriate, we summarise the latest research on ore deposits and the activities of the minerals industry. Following a description of the numerous geological processes that form ore deposits, we outline the scientific methods used by the minerals industry to explore for new deposits. We also discuss how resources are mined and how minerals are processed, as well as recent efforts to reduce related environmental impacts. Economic and societal factors influence supply, and these are as important as the actual presence of a resource. Finally, we discuss the critical roles that geoscientists will play in assuring continued supplies of minerals. These include the development of new concepts and techniques that will assist the discovery, mining, processing, remediation, and management of mineral resources. It is essential that researchers help to educate the general public about the need for continued exploration to find new resources to meet growth in world living standards.
We demonstrate that global resources of copper, and probably of most other metals, are much larger than most currently available estimates, especially if increasing efficiencies and higher prices allow lower-grade ores to be mined. These observations indicate that supplies of important mineral commodities will remain adequate for the foreseeable future.