Mankind, Minerals and the Environment

Chander, S. ; van Zyl, Dirk
Organization: Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration
Pages: 4
Publication Date: Jan 1, 1992
Minerals have been critical to human society from the earliest and their use has been intertwined with the development of civilization. In the Western World, the mining, processing and extractive metallurgy associated with ores was first described in detail by Agricola in the 16th century. He considered these collective activities to be the most necessary and the most profitable of professions, and wrote, "without doubt, none of the arts is older than agriculture, but that of the metals is not less ancient; in fact they are at least equal and coeval, for no mortal man ever tilled a field without implements. In truth, in all works of agriculture, as in the other arts, implements are used which are made from metals, or which could not be made without the use of metals; for this reason the metals are of the greatest necessity to man." Ours is still a materials-dependent society that relies heavily on minerals for raw materials. Today our dependence on minerals is exceptionally great. To meet the need for fuel and non-fuel minerals in a representative year, in the United States alone, about one billion tons of coal and 2.7 billion tons of ore are mined. These mineral products are essential for fertilizers, for construction materials, metals and alloys, for manufacturing household and industrial items, for transportation, and for the generation of electric power. It is instructive to consider the diversity of uses found in our society for a single mineral product - silver, for example. Experts believe that in the past 5000 years we have mined about a million tons, or 31.9 billion troy ounces of silver. In 1988, 133 million troy ounces of silver were used in the Unites States. Most of the silver used was for techno- logical, medicinal and industrial purposes, Table 1. X-ray films, for example, carry comparatively large amounts of silver to lessen patient's radiation exposure. Silver does not prevent tooth decay, but each year about two million troy ounces of silver is used for dental work in the United States. In small quantities it is used in medicine. No metal - not even copper conducts heat and electricity so efficiently as silver. Silver wires lace solar cells, and silver oxide batteries power hearing aids, calculators, submarines and satellites. Hardened with tungsten or molybdenum, miniature discs of silver pass current from wire to wire in cars, telephones and computers. A dish- washer timer alone may have 50 such electrical contacts, which open and close without excessive heat or friction. Silver is an important component of solar reflectors, since no other material reflects light so well or uniformly. In our personal lives, silver remains in high esteem to adorn our tables, provide precious objects and jewelry. In many parts of the world, silver in the form of coins, jewelry and bullion is used for financial independence and security against the vagaries of paper currency. In India, silver is used in its purest form as thin foils to decorate sweets and other edibles. It is obvious that this mineral product, silver, is of great value and utility in our society. Minerals and Environment The benefits of minerals do not come without problems. Much of the silver, for example, lies locked up in copper, lead-zinc or precious metal ores; to extract it creates vast quantities of waste material. On the average, in order to recover one ounce of silver about a quarter ton of ore must be mined. To meet the world's annual demand for silver, approximately 100 million tons of waste is generated every Year. The problem with silver is repeated with all minerals. Conversion of mineral ores into usable materials necessitates the generation of large quantities of waste products that create tremendous disposal problems. In addition to waste material discarded during mining, wastes may be generated during processing as gases, liquids or solids that must be subsequently converted into forms more acceptable for disposal. Associated with the handling, treatment and management of waste products are a number of environmental problems. Environmental problems are not new to the minerals industry. In his Geographia, Strabo (63 B.C. - 20 A.D.), gives an account of the conditions of labor under which men
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