We all use minerals in our everyday lives. They are the naturally occurring substances that are the building blocks of rocks. Minerals are necessary for fertile soils and the food we eat, they provide the materials with which we build houses and other structures, minerals are used to make machines and the technologies we now rely on in the modern world.
Solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles, medical devices, lights, lasers, satellites, fibre optics and batteries, as well as mobile phones, have all become essential technologies in our lives. New and innovative technologies are always being developed and each may require different or new mineral resources from those used in technologies today; uncommon minerals may become more important, even critical, to supply future needs.
Renewable and non-renewable resources
A non-renewable resource is a natural resource that cannot be replaced as quickly as it is being used. Examples of non-renewable resources include minerals and ores, oil, natural gas and coal. Renewable natural resources replenish over a short amount of time and include timber and energy from wind, solar and waves.
All minerals that we use are extracted from ore deposits mined from the Earth. Ore is rock or sediment that contains one or more valuable minerals, typically metals, that can be mined, treated and sold. For example bauxite (aluminum oxide, hydrate) is an ore of aluminium. After they are mined, ores are purified into individual minerals or metals through a series of concentrating, smelting and refining processes. Geoscience Australia aims to understand and quantify the minerals resources in Australia, for example through our Exploring for the Future program.
Solar panels have become a very common modern technology in Australia. The panels convert light from the Sun into electricity. Most solar panels are made of the element silicon (c-Si) but new thinner, flexible panels, like copper-indium-gallium-(di)selenide (CIGS), cadmium telluride (CdTe) and dye-sensitised solar cells, use rarer minerals in their manufacture.
Solar panels panorama by PixabayGeoscience Australia
Silica (silicon dioxide) is used in the manufacture of the glass surface of solar panels.
Quartz sand is the primary raw material used to make glass. High purity (>99.9 percent silica) sand is used to manufacture ultra-clear glass. The Australian solar panel market is growing rapidly creating increasing demand for raw materials, this means that resources of high purity silica sand are valuable assets. Sand from a beach is not usually suitable for glass making as it contains contaminates like aluminium, titanium, magnesium and iron.
In Australia, high purity silica is mined in Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia. Notable silica sand mines include Cape Flattery and Coonarr Creek in Northern Queensland, Hawkes Creek, Blackwater and Corinna in Tasmania, and Albany in Western Australia. Australia is well positioned to meet future demand for silica with numerous silica sand projects currently in development.
Dye-sensitized solar cells contain semi-conductors that are composed of titanium dioxide.
Titanium is primarily obtained from the minerals rutile and ilmenite. These minerals resist weathering and become concentrated in wind-blown sand deposits.
Australia accounts for around 13 percent of the global production of ilmenite. Rutile and ilmenite are found in mineral sand deposits associated with modern and ancient beaches and dunes of the east, west and southern coastlines of Australia.
Platinum is a key material in dye-sensitized solar cells, where it is used to make counter electrodes.
Platinum is present in certain igneous rock bodies. Platinum is also obtained as a by-product of nickel and copper ore processing.
Platinum-group elements (including platinum, palladium, ruthenium, rhodium, iridium and osmium) are currently mined from small deposits in Western Australia, and Australia has favourable geology for potential new discoveries. Platinum group elements are strongly associated with nickel, and Australia accounts for 23 percent of the world’s nickel resources. In 2016, Geoscience Australia conducted a continental scale study to identify new areas with previously unrecognised potential for major nickel-copper-platinum group element deposits. This work discovered new mineralised systems, including the Julimar deposit (not shown on map), located 70 km from Perth which holds significant potential for future development.
There are many more minerals used in the production of solar panels, these include:
Indium, an important semi-conductor material used in copper–indium–gallium–(di)selenide (CIGS) solar cells.
Gallium is an important semi-conductor material used in copper–indium–gallium–(di)selenide solar cells. Gallium's melting point is just 29.76°C!
Boron (from borax) is used in silicon solar panel semi-conductors.
Phosphorous (most commonly found in apatite) is used in silicon solar panel semi-conductors.
Cadmium (from greenockite) is used to make semi-conductors in cadmium telluride solar cells.
Tellurium (from coloradoite) is used in semi-conductors in cadmium telluride solar cells.
Wind turbines generate electricity from movement of the air. A turbine has a very tall tower with two or three propeller-like blades at the top. When the wind blows the blades turn a generator located inside the tower, which creates electricity.
Wind turbinesGeoscience Australia
There are a number of both common and rare minerals used in the manufacture of wind turbines. Wind turbine towers and drivetrains are made of steel, zinc and aluminium and account for about 80 percent of the total weight. Some turbine designs use direct-drive magnetics which contain the rare earth metals neodymium and dysprosium. It is estimated that about 20 percent of all installed wind turbines use rare earth magnets. Wind turbines also contain copper in the generators, carbon fibre and fibreglass in the blades and concrete is used to construct the towers.
Through the process of galvanisation, zinc is coated on other metals to prevent rust and corrosion. Using galvanised steel for wind turbine towers, blades and drivetrains lengthens the life of the turbine; this is particularly useful for offshore power plants (turbines in the ocean) that are exposed to salt water.
The main mineral used to provide zinc is sphalerite, which contains up to 67 percent zinc by mass. Smithsonite, willemite and hemimorphite are also zinc ores.
Australia has the world largest zinc resources and ranks third in the world for total zinc production. The main zinc mines are at McArthur River in the Northern Territory and Hilton-George Fisher in Queensland. Dugald River is also being developed in north-west Queensland on one of the globe's highest grade known zinc deposits.
Aluminium is used in wind turbine towers, blades and nacelles, where the transfer of wind power to electricity occurs.
Aluminium is the third most common element in the Earth’s crust. Aluminium ore (bauxite) contains the minerals diaspore, boehmite, and gibbsite. The bauxite must be chemically processed to produce alumina (aluminium oxide), before it is smelted using an electrolysis process to produce pure aluminium metal.
Australia is the world’s largest producer of bauxite accounting for 30 percent of global production. Australia’s resources of bauxite are the second largest in the world after Guinea. Australia is also the world’s second largest producer of alumina after China.
Rare Earth Elements
Rare-earth elements are used in some of the most powerful and efficient magnets on the planet. Rare-earth elements enable wind turbines to have smaller, lighter magnets in their generators, than would otherwise be possible. Over the past two decades, the global demand for rare earth elements has grown significantly due to increased use in high-end technologies. Magnets in wind turbines, and batteries for electric vehicles, are the current end use for approximately 32 percent of neodymium and dysprosium mined today.
Approximately 160 minerals are known to contain rare earths but currently only four are mined for this purpose: monazite, bastnasite, laterite clays, and loparite.
Australia accounts for three percent of world resources of rare earth elements. Historically, Australia has exported large quantities of monazite, from heavy mineral sands, for the extraction of both rare earths and thorium.
There are many more minerals used in wind turbine production, some are shown here:
Molybdenum is used in corrosion protection for wind turbines.
Copper is used in wind turbine controls and in wires to transfer electricity to the power station.
Iron is used in wind turbine magnets and in steel to build the turbine structure.
Vanadium is used in battery storage of energy produced by wind turbines.
Cobalt is used in wind turbine battery storage.
Hydroelectric Power Generation
Hydroelectric energy is generated using flowing water. A controlled amount of water is forced through tunnels in a dam which turns huge turbines and generates electricity. Hydroelectricity currently meets about seven percent of global demand for energy.
Hydroelectric dam schematic by TomiaOriginal Source: Wikimedia Commons
A variety of materials are used in hydroelectric facilities including steel in turbines, pipelines and dam wall reinforcing; copper is used in electromagnetic components of generators and for electricity transfer; and cement, sand and gravel forms diversion structures and pipelines made of concrete.
Steel is an alloy that is made by mixing iron with a few percent of carbon, and other elements, to improve its strength. Steel is used in a range of structures for the production of hydroelectricity. The turbines within hydroelectric plants are steel, as is the reinforcing in the diversion structures and pipelines, and in there is steel in generators and electricity lines.
Iron is an element found in many minerals. Goethite, hematite and magnetite are all minerals that are mined to provide iron. Once processed most iron is used to make steel.
Australia is ranked number one in the world for iron resources and is one of the largest producers of iron ore in the world. There is iron ore in all the Australian states and territories but almost 90 percent of identified resources are in Western Australia, including almost 80 percent in the Hamersley Province, one of the world's major iron ore producing regions.
Copper is used within electromagnetic components of electric generators used in hydroelectric turbines. Copper is perfectly suited for use within generators as it is a soft, malleable, and ductile metal with very high thermal and electrical conductivity.
Copper is a common element in many minerals such as malachite and azurite, and sometimes occurs naturally in pure form known as native copper.
Most of the world’s copper comes from the minerals chalcopyrite and chalcocite.
Australia holds a substantial portion of the world’s copper and is ranked second for resources after Chile. Several copper mines in Australia are of world significance, including the Mt Isa copper-lead-zinc deposit in Queensland and the Olympic Dam copper-uranium-gold deposit in South Australia.
Cement, water, sand and gravel are all mixed together to form the durable, strong and inexpensive construction material concrete. In hydroelectric power systems concrete is extensively used in diversion structures and pipelines to dam or relocate water.
Cement is the grey powder that when mixed with water acts as the glue that binds the concrete together. For example, ‘Portland cement’ is composed of crushed limestone, shale, iron ore and sometimes sand. In New South Wales, the limestone is mined at Marulan South. Concrete needs to be made close to where it is used as it generally only lasts 90 minutes before it starts to harden. The sand and gravel within the concrete is usually locally sourced to keep transportation costs down.
Batteries support renewable energy sources like solar and wind by allowing excess power to be stored for usage when direct solar or wind power is unavailable. Batteries are also vital for the manufacturing of electric vehicles.
Tesla house batteryGeoscience Australia
Lithium ion batteries power almost all electric vehicles available, as well as most personal electronic devices; lithium is also an important mineral used in energy-storage from solar and wind technologies. Due to increasing demand for batteries, more than 50 percent of lithium mined is now used in this way.
In Australia, lithium is mined from the rock pegmatite and recovered from the mineral spodumene. Overseas it is also recovered from lithium-rich brines in salt lakes, mainly in Chile.
Australia is the world’s largest producer of lithium and production has increased rapidly in recent years due to demand for technological uses.
Cobalt is used within the cathodes of lithium-ion batteries. Cobalt provides the battery with high energy density and capacity, high voltage and long life cycles. Cobalt use in battery manufacture is beginning to decline due to high production costs.
Cobalt is usually obtained from the minerals cobaltite (cobalt sulfide) and smaltite (cobalt arsenide).
Australia provides 20 percent of the world’s cobalt and ranks third in world production. Australia is well placed to supply future cobalt demand, with increased resource development, exploration activity and opportunities for cobalt production being fueled by increased renewable technology applications.
Graphite is the main material used to make anodes through which electrical current flows in lithium-ion batteries. Graphite is heat resistant, electrically and thermally conductive, chemically passive and is lightweight so is perfect for this application.
Graphite is found in high-grade metamorphic rocks; in veins or fractures; or in thermally metamorphosed coal deposits.
Graphite deposits are found in Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia, and Australia ranks eighth in the world for total graphite resources. The potential for economic graphite production is currently being assessed for a number of Australian deposits; these could significantly contribute to supply future increased demand.
"Everything we use comes from somewhere. If it was not grown, it was mined."
Exhibit published January 2021