Five countries with unexpected mineral reserves

JP Casey 4 December 2018 (Last Updated December 4th, 2018 17:11)

Here are five countries with some of the world’s most unexpected mineral reserves.

Five countries with unexpected mineral reserves
The Luwowo Coltan cobalt mine in the DRC. Credit: MONUSCO

Many of the world’s most prominent resources are located in countries with developed extractive industries, such as coal and rare earths in China, or oil in the Middle East. However, several smaller countries have disproportionately high reserves of particular minerals, or more developed countries have large reserves of a single element.

 

Cobalt in the DRC

Almost half of the world’s cobalt reserves are located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), with the central African country containing 3.5 million tonnes, out of a global total of 7.1 million tonnes, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS). The DRC also boats abundant reserves of copper, diamond and tin, and in 2009 its total mineral reserves were valued at $24m.

Yet it is the DRC’s cobalt, a silver-grey metal that is frequently used in the lithium batteries that power electric vehicles, that offers the greatest economic upside for the country. Demand for these batteries, and as a result cobalt, is set to increase significantly in the future, with Global Energy Metals predicting that lithium-ion batteries will account for 62% of the world’s batteries by 2020, compared to just 20% in 2006. The same company estimated that by the same year, cobalt will be found in three-quarters of the world’s lithium batteries.

However, the DRC has struggled to translate these vast mineral reserves into economic development, as war, political instability and corruption on the part of government officials have conspired to undermine the DRC’s mining sector. In 2010, the UN ranked the DRC as the world’s third poorest country, and the following year estimated that over 71% of its people live on less than a dollar a day.

 

Graphite in Turkey

With the Alpine-Himalayan tectonic belt within its borders, Turkey boasts the tenth most diverse range of mineral resources, according to law firm IFLR 1000, and 2.5% of the world’s reserves of industrial raw materials.

It also has graphite reserves of 90,000 tonnes, according to the USGS, equivalent to one-third of the world’s total reserves.

Graphite is a form of carbon that is typically used as a lubricant in operations where wet lubricants, such as oil, cannot be used. The mineral is also very resistant to high temperatures, only evaporating from its solid form at around 3,727oC, and so is often used in the crucibles used in steel production facilities.

Production of graphite, however, remains low, with just 4 tonnes produced in Turkey in both 2016 and 2017, according to the USGS. Turkish mines have seen worsening safety conditions in recent years due to postponements of mining safety legislation, resulting in the number of occupational accidents increasing from 74,871 in 2012 to 241,547 in 2015, according to Mining Turkey magazine. Similarly, the number of fatalities increased from 744 in 2012 to 1,970 in 2016, creating a cycle of economic sanctions and poor productivity that has affected graphite mines in Turkey.

 

Uranium in Australia

While Australia is the world’s leading producer of ilmenite, iron ore and zircon, and the second largest producer of gold, lead and lithium, its vast uranium reserves are of particular note. With around 1.8 billion tonnes of the radioactive material, Australia accounts for almost one-third of the world’s total reserves, according to a 2016 report published by the Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

However, the majority of the 6,937 tonnes of uranium produced in Australia in 2017 are not used to power nuclear power stations in the country, as the isotope uranium-235, which is often recovered from Australian mines, does not contain a high enough proportion of uranium to be useful as a fuel. This isotope contains around 07.% uranium, whereas a proportion of at least 1% is required for the isotope to be useful as a fuel. As a result, most of Australia’s uranium is exported, rather than used domestically.

This export-based economy has enabled the Australian uranium industry to remain profitable even as raw production falls; the 6,938 tonnes produced in 2017 were just two-thirds of the 2007 figure of 10,145. There are also just three mines currently producing uranium in Australia. The export value of Australian uranium has increased inconsistently over the last decade, reaching A$93.1 per kilogram in 2016, up from A$86.11 in 2007, but lower than the ten-year peak of A$115.1 in 2015.

 

Bauxite in Guinea

The West African country is reported to have 7.4 billion tonnes of bauxite, 26.9% of the world’s total reserves, and is also the world’s largest producer of the ore, producing 50 million tonnes in 2017.

Bauxite is not a mineral itself, but a rock consisting of minerals that contain aluminium, making it an important component in the global aluminium supply chain. Bauxite is heavily sought-after in countries such as China, which saw imports increase 32.55% from 2016 to a total of 68.55 million tonnes in 2017.

Interest from China has contributed significantly to the development of bauxite mines in Guinea, with a Chinese-led consortium investing $3bn into the construction of an alumina refinery and connected railway line in Guinea. The country has also overtaken Australia to be the largest exporter of bauxite to China, shipping 27.7 million tonnes of the rock to China in 2017, compared to the 25.5 million tonnes it received from Australia.

Despite its considerable reserves and production, Guinea has not profited considerably from its bauxite exports. Russia company Rusal, which operates bauxite mines in Guinea, arranged to return a share of its profits to Guineans in exchange for conducting mining operations on their land, but this translated to just one US dollar per tonne of the 3.1 million tonnes of bauxite the company produced in Guinea in 2017.

 

Bitumen in Venezuela

Oil is one of the most important products of the extractive industry, mined predominantly in the Middle East and in offshore operations. Meanwhile bitumen, naturally-occurring solid forms of petroleum, is a critical component in the construction of roads, with 70% of the world’s bitumen being used as the binding component in asphalt concrete.

Venezuela, Canada and the former Soviet states dominate the world bitumen trade, with almost 90% of bitumen reserves between them. Venezuela is estimated to have 236 billion barrels of the substance, equivalent to around 42 billion tonnes, and a number of geographical features mean the country’s reserves are a more attractive investment than similar deposits in other countries.

Venezuela’s warm climate means deposits can have temperatures of up to 50oC, compared to just 20oC in similar deposits in countries such as Canada, reducing the amount of energy required by miners to alter the oil to a temperature at which it can flow. Most of Venezuela’s deposits are located in the Orinoco Petroleum Belt, which has access to the Caribbean Sea, making exporting bitumen easier.