The most strategic minerals and elements being mined across the world are in healthy supply, but politics, economics and skills shortages create potential causes for concern, engineers have concluded.
A debate organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering (November 1), proposed the motion: ‘This House believes there is no need for concern about the future global supply of strategic minerals’.
The motion was heavily defeated after the audience heard that there are a number of factors that could disrupt the world-wide supply of minerals and rare earth elements, now commonplace in everyday devices such as smartphones.
Arguing for the motion, Andrew Bloodworth of British Geological Survey, and Jan Lewis, President of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining, said that reserves of these minerals were plentiful, not just in operational mines but also in those that had been mothballed. They also pointed out that scaremongering over shortages of various minerals and commodities had been around for at least two centuries and all scares so far had proved to be unfounded.
Addressing the concern that China had a strategic hold over the world’s mineral supply that could be tightened at any moment, it was argued that a reduction in supply increases price and changes behaviour – this would be a trigger for adaptation rather than concern.
Rejecting the motion, Edward Bickham, senior consultant within the extractive sector, and Professor Jan Cilliers FREng of Imperial College London, agreed that the quantity of resource was not an issue, but that ‘supply’ meant more than just abundance of stock.
The pair argued that the world is an unpredictable place and there was always a risk to the uninterrupted supply of minerals, whether that be through national frictions or even conflicts. They proposed that we are currently in a period of strategic rivalry between China and the West and that China is playing to a different set of rules.
Skills within the mining sector were also raised. Currently, the US and Australia produce just 40 mineral engineering graduates each a year while it is estimated that China produces upwards of 3,000. The sum of skilled Western workers was described as a talent ‘puddle’ rather than a talent pool. This skills shortage would continue to cause concern as the number of minerals being used has grown rapidly and these rely on unique processes and require specialist knowledge, such as the safe disposal of radioactive wastes.
In the floor debate, a number of suggestions and solutions was put forward, including increasing salaries to attract talent, legislation by governments to change consumer and supplier behaviours and even to produce a sitcom to make mineral mining more popular with young people.
Chairing the event, the Academy’s Senior Vice President Professor Sir William Wakeham FREng said: “These strategic minerals are essential to the functioning of society because of their widespread use in manufacturing, energy production, communications and more. The price and supply of many strategic minerals have come under pressure as the growth of emerging economies accelerates and the global population crosses the seven billion mark. Our panel of mining and resources experts put forward a number of very convincing arguments for both sides, but ultimately the motion was defeated”.
The motion was defeated by 2:1.
Download a bullet point list of arguments, for and against the motion (145.70 KB)
Listen to opening statements from all four speakers
Download speaker biographies (100.13 KB)
Download the event brochure (154.21 KB)
The third debate in the series of three on Natural Resources in the Global Economy will focus on water and be held on 17 January 2012. To register, email International
Notes for editors
The Royal Academy of Engineering
Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.
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