The mining mysteries yet to be resolved

JP Casey 5 February 2020 (Last Updated January 31st, 2020 11:25)

Despite significant investment and great strides in new technologies, mining and mining exploration can still be an unpredictable industry. From recent scientific discoveries to still-unexplained spikes in commodity prices, we consider some of the biggest mysteries in mining.

The mining mysteries yet to be resolved
20,000 mineral deposits have been explored in the Russian Arctic alone. Credit: ezioman

In 2012, the Boston Consulting Group declared that “mineral exploration is in crisis”, as spiralling exploration costs and declining rates of successful digs made the process of exploration one as costly as it was unproductive.

This phenomenon is compounded by the fact that many of the world’s largest mineral deposits are located in countries with weaker regulatory bodies and local governments, with Euractiv reporting earlier this year that more than half of the world’s “major reserves” are found in countries with a per capita gross national income of $10 a day or less. This combination of high costs, underwhelming products and administrative instability has helped to characterise the exploration sector as one of uncertainty and the unknown.

These issues present challenges to overcome, and while many remain unresolved, there is the potential for many of these mysteries to be solved. From scientific breakthroughs in Sweden to public pressure on the International Seabed Authority (ISA), mining exploration presents unique mysteries and challenges.

Deep sea data

The world’s deepest seabeds are one of the last remaining wildernesses, isolated from human development and largely unexplored. However, these areas also have potentially significant mineral deposits, with National Geographic estimating in 2016 that subsea gold reserves alone could be worth up to $150tn.

With this potential in mind, the world’s deepest regions have seen increased attention from miners in recent years, with the ISA granting 29 exploration licences to private companies and national governments to explore for minerals beneath the waves. However, with the demise of the controversial Solwara 1 deep sea mining project near Papua New Guinea last year, and ongoing concerns about the inherent environmental damage of the practice, there have been calls for, at the very least, an increase in the availability of data on subsea mineral reserves, to better inform future decisions concerning mining permitting and operations.

In response, the ISA launched its Deep Data project in August last year, a centralised database on mineral resources collected from a number of actors involved in deepsea mining. While the database is an encouraging start, and a much-needed update over the original ISA Central Data Repository established in 2000, the authority remains limited by the small scale of exploration works completed in some of the most mineral-rich areas of the seafloor. National Geographic reported that the most intense data collection project in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a 500,000 square mile stretch of water between Hawaii and Mexico, had only collected one biological sample for every 16 square miles, leaving much of the area unexplored.

Myanmar tin disruption

The south-east Asian state of Myanmar briefly disrupted the global tin trade in 2016, when a new mine emerged in the semi-autonomous Wa State region. The state, which covers two separate areas, one in the north and one in the south of the country, consists predominantly of Wa people, an ethnic group separated from the majority Burmese population in Myanmar when communism collapsed in the late 1980s. The state is currently a self-administered division, a legal grey area between devolved region of Myanmar and fully-fledged independent nation, and much of its internal politics remain secretive.

In 2016, the Man Maw tin mine, dubbed “mysterious” by Reuters reached peak production of 50,000 tonnes per year, according to the International Tin Association, a dramatic rise in productivity that contributed to a 4,900% increase in total tin production across Myanmar. This figure placed the region among the top tin producers in the world, behind only China and Indonesia, and was the world’s largest exporter of tin to China.

However, the state has seen its impact on the tin industry fall as quickly as it developed, with Reuters reporting that the grade of tin deposits at the site has fallen from 10% to around just 2%, and the number of people employed at tin mines halving between 2014 and 2016. The state’s unclear international status, with its sovereignty unrecognised and suffering from US sanctions for its alleged role in drug trafficking activities, and sudden decline in mineral reserves means this sudden explosion in tin discovery and production may remain one of mining’s unsolved mysteries.

Arctic uncertainty

The Arctic Circle boasts some of the world’s deepest mineral reserves, with 20,000 mineral deposits explored, and more than 30% mined, in the Russian Arctic alone. In 2005, the export of precious stones and mined commodities was the second-largest Russian export, behind the export of oil and gas, and this was a sector fuelled by development in the country’s northern areas, where the sparsity of human populations means there are few obstacles to large-scale industrial development.

However, the United States Geological Survey noted that this boom could be short-lived, with many of the most valuable commodities in the region expected to be depleted. Only bauxite, coal, iron ore and phosphate are expected to last beyond 2025, and all forms of mining in the region have come under increased scrutiny lately following the appearance of black snow, polluted with waste products from coal facilities, in parts of Siberia. The lack of a centralised governing authority – one of the factors that encouraged initial development in the region – introduces further uncertainty to the issue, as the eight countries that border the Arctic are free to set their own guidelines and restrictions on Arctic mining, creating a series of overlapping regulations that add little clarity to the situation.

There has even been growing interest in Arctic mining from countries beyond the pole, with China announcing plans to establish an “ice silk road” to the Arctic in 2018, further confusing the situation, and establishing the Arctic as one of many geopolitical battlegrounds in the mineral sector.

Solving rare earth mysteries

Last year, scientists from Uppsala University, the Geological Survey of Sweden, and the University of Cape Town identified the origin of rare earth deposits known as “Bastnäs-type” deposits, deposits in Sweden that were the first hard-rock ores to be mined for rare earth elements. The team found that these deposits were initially formed in a sub-seafloor environment, before environmental changes, and its own interaction with local sources of limestone, led to the formation of the rare earth deposits.

These deposits can be found along a strip in south central Sweden roughly 100km long, and the researchers hope that the discovery will aid in the mining industry’s understanding of rare earth elements, with the minerals becoming increasingly sought-after due to their uses in new technologies and green power generation. Production and trading of the minerals was worth up to $2tn, according to Zhongxue Li of the University of Science and Technology Beijing, and demand has increased dramatically from around 80,000 metric tons in 2007 to around 120,000 by 2015.