Metals in your smartphone and other technology face big supply challenges

With finite resources on Earth and concern over critical minerals, new approaches are needed in the metals-based economy


Demand for metals is increasing rapidly in the metals-based economy.


Smartphone manufacturers will need to become a lot smarter in their designs, amid concern about the future of metal supply.

With up to 60 different metals in a smartphone, new designs must "ensure more effective disassembly, so that the valuable metals can be separated and recycled".

So says University of Newcastle Laureate Professor Kevin Galvin, who said "peak copper may pose a significant global shock within the next 20 years".

As well as copper, smartphones contain precious metals including gold, silver, copper, platinum and palladium.

Professor Galvin, of the university's School of Engineering, said geopolitical tensions had "heightened concerns over so-called critical minerals".

"This is now a major focus of the federal government."

Read more: Can the resources sector ever be sustainable?

Geoscience Australia, a federal department, says critical minerals are metals and non-metals that are vital for the world's major and emerging economies.

This includes minerals used in the manufacture of flat screen monitors, wind turbines, electric cars, solar panels and many other high-tech applications - as well as smartphones.

Professor Galvin said the world must ultimately "move towards a circular economy to ensure maximum recycling of these valuable metals".

Mineral processes that can recover a vast range of metals will "likely become part of a wider movement based around the concepts and framework of industrial ecology".

Industrial ecology is linked to the circular economy concept, which involves more recycling and less waste.

"At this stage the annual consumption of copper is about 25 million tonnes per annum, which includes 5 million tonnes per annum through recycling.

"The shortfall in recycling reflects the time in use, with large stocks locked away in buildings and other infrastructure.

"Even with a strong improvement in recycling, current stocks are well below that needed to meet the demands of the new economy, so mining must continue."

He said demand for metals was increasing rapidly "due to the global shift from a carbon-based economy to a metals-based economy".

"It is likely that in the next 20 years, we will need to produce more copper than the world has produced in the past 5000 years, due in part to electric vehicles.

"Imagine the energy consumed in grinding the hard rock to 'bug dust' in search for the 1 per cent copper and the challenge in recovering the water used for processing this very fine suspension of particles," he said.

Future Challenges

Technologies used in minerals processing have traditionally "proven remarkably successful".

However, they won't meet future challenges due to the "declining quality of the remaining ore bodies and the increasing demand for resources".

A much more diverse range of metals is needed. This includes rare earth metals for the magnets used in wind turbines and other "so-called battery metals such as lithium, manganese and cobalt".

"We need to establish transformational change in minerals processing to address these challenges."

He said the flotation cells used in copper concentrators were now "up to an extraordinary 600 cubic metres in volume".

"By 2040, they might have to become the size of three Olympic swimming pools."

Given this, much faster and efficient methods are needed.

Professor Galvin leads a University of Newcastle-based research centre to develop more efficient mineral processing.

He's leading a $35 million project that will fund eight years of "world-leading research".

The aim is to develop more efficient and sustainable mineral processing.

While the main research node is in Newcastle, the national project involves eight Australian universities, CSIRO, industry and overseas universities.

The centre began in July, following the signing of contracts.

"Our centre already has a pipeline of new technologies in train," Professor Galvin said.

"We anticipate other entirely new approaches will emerge over the next seven years.

"Our current goal is the recruitment of 41 PhD students and 15 research associates into three research programs involving a total of 51 interconnected projects.

"The pandemic has presented a number of challenges, however video conferencing platforms have proven invaluable."

Some minerals are now more difficult to access and extract. The need for large amounts of energy and water in mineral processing is costly and unsustainable.

Such pressures have created an urgent need to improve mineral processing and reduce its environmental footprint.

The university's centre is aiming to achieve zero-emission mining, including a doubling of energy and water productivity and reducing the loss of high value metals during processing by up to 90 per cent.

Professor Galvin said it was impossible to imagine the world without metals.

"Minerals processing has helped build the modern world, delivering the myriad of minerals needed for making the metals used by society," he said.

Space Mining

Entrepreneurs and political leaders are now turning their attention to space mining, with plans to mine asteroids and the moon.

"There are serious considerations being given to the question of space mining, motivated in part by the need to develop waterless processing here on Earth, but also with the realisation that our resources here on Earth are finite," Professor Galvin said.

"The technological challenges are considerable given the absence of a cheap medium such as air and water on the moon for sorting the particles.

"The simple action of digging a hole must address Newton's third law - how to achieve traction in the absence of gravity."

The potential for conflict between nation states could be significant. The US and China, for example, are in a race to mine the moon.

"New legal frameworks will be needed ahead of this global race. But with private companies now involved, nation states may need to play catch up," he said.