Minerals are vital to the way we live – in homes, food production, transport and infrastructure, at work and play. The minerals we use in New Zealand must be either mined or recycled, in New Zealand or abroad.
It has been estimated that each person uses over ten tonnes of minerals and metals in one year on average. This is about the same weight as seven cars. Watch the clip to see examples of how almost every aspect of your life involves minerals.
Life in cities, and elsewhere, would be inconceivable without cement and steel. These commodities, with aggregates (gravel), are used in the construction of buildings and infrastructure including hydro and wind electricity generation and transmission; roads, bridges, overpasses, tunnels; sea and airports; seawalls and flood control schemes; sports and recreation facilities; the oil refinery; and in mining.
The water you drink uses minerals to filter it to make it safe to drink, and most health and beauty products contain minerals, including vitamins, soaps, toothpaste, shampoos and medicines.
And to feed the world, much of the food we produce requires fertilisers, which contain minerals such as phosphate, sulphur, cadmium and phosphorus - these are by-products of mining.
Up to 26 different minerals are used in every smart phone. And consider this: there are an estimated billion iphones in the world, containing around 7,800t of copper, 2,720t of nickel, 8,140t of silicon and 300t of titanium. All those vital components had to be mined.
Most Kiwis know we already mine gold, silver, iron sands and coal here in New Zealand, along with aggregates from quarries. But, what’s less well known, is we also have the potential to mine tungsten, copper, palladium and platinum, and rare earth elements such as neodymium.
Why are those minerals important?
Tungsten, which has the highest melting point of any metal, is used in filaments in incandescent light bulbs; in electric contacts and arc-welding electrodes; and in alloys such as steel (to make it stronger)
Copper is an excellent conductor of electricity, and is used in electrical generators and motors, for electrical wiring, and in electronic goods, such as radios, TVs and mobile phones
Palladium’s primary use today is used in catalytic converters for vehicles. But it is also used in in jewellery, dentistry, watchmaking, blood sugar test strips, aircraft spark plugs, surgical instruments, and electrical contacts. It’s even used to make professional transverse (concert or classical) flutes.
Platinum is also widely used in catalytic converters for cars, trucks and buses. Other uses include jewellery and as a catalyst in the production of chemicals such as nitric acid, silicone and benzene.
Neodymium magnets have many applications. They are used in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, motors, door locks, and even children's toys. Neodymium can also be mixed with the element praseodymium to form didymium glass, which is used in masks for welders, blacksmiths, and glass blowers. Didymium glass is special because it blocks the yellow light that is emitted by a flame that these professions use, protecting their eyes and making it easier for them to see their work.
The challenge with these commodities is to get them at a good price, and that favours local production, where possible. Transportation costs, and associated emissions, are always significant with bulk commodities. New Zealand manufactures and imports cement, and manufactures steel at Glenbrook in South Auckland for export and domestic consumption. We also import steel to make up the shortfall in domestic supply. Coal is a key ingredient in the manufacture of cement and steel, and is also produced in New Zealand.
There are around 900 quarries in New Zealand producing aggregates and industrial minerals such as limestone and clay.
Globally – and here in New Zealand – there is a strong focus on more sustainable consumption of minerals, including better recycling and technology advances. However, numerous economists and sociologists predict demand for minerals will rise sharply as the world’s population increases, people achieve higher living standards, and as we progress to a lower carbon economy. For instance, around 16 minerals are required to make a solar panel, including copper, iron ore and phosphate rock.