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Thematic Articles Archives - Elements
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Thematic Articles

Educating the Resource Geologist of the Future: Between Observation and Imagination

Training geologists for a career in the mining industry has changed over the years. It has become at the same time more specialized and with a broader approach. The modern resource geologist needs to understand new styles of ore deposits, the impact of energy transition on the types of deposits and to implement mining processes, the increasing number of mining regulations, and the shift toward educating populations in countries that are new to mining. Based on observation and imagination, rooted in fundamental science, the education of a resource geologist has been transformed by the digital revolution and the integration of the principles of sustainable development. Training future resource geologists means changing the role of teachers to better develop the imaginations of their students and to increasing what students know about the social impact of mining.

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Improving Mitigation of the Long-Term Legacy of Mining Activities: Nano- and Molecular-Level Concepts and Methods

Mining activities over several millennia have resulted in a legacy of environmental contamination that must be mitigated to minimize ecosystem damage and human health impacts. Designing effective remediation strategies for mining and processing wastes requires knowledge of nano- and molecular-scale speciation of contaminants. Here, we discuss how modern nano- and molecular-level concepts and methods can be used to improve risk assessment and future management of contaminants that result from mining activities, and we illustrate this approach using relevant case studies.

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Global Trends in Metal Consumption and Supply: The Raw Material–Energy Nexus

The consumption of mineral resources and energy has increased exponentially over the last 100 years. Further growth is expected until at least the middle of the 21st century as the demand for minerals is stimulated by the industrialization of poor countries, increasing urbanization, penetration of rapidly evolving high technologies, and the transition to low-carbon energies. In order to meet this demand, more metals will have to be produced by 2050 than over the last 100 years, which raises questions about the sustainability and conditions of supply. The answers to these questions are not only a matter of available reserves. Major effort will be required to develop new approaches and dynamic models to address social, economic, environmental, geological, technological, legal and geopolitical impacts of the need for resources.

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Responsible Sourcing of Critical Metals

Most critical raw materials, such as the rare-earth elements (REEs), are starting products in long manufacturing supply chains. Unlike most consumers, geoscientists can become involved in responsible sourcing, including best environmental and social practices, because geology is related to environmental impact factors such as energy requirements, resource efficiency, radioactivity and the amount of rock mined. The energy and material inputs and the emissions and waste from mining and processing can be quantified, and studies for REEs show little difference between ‘hard rocks’, such as carbonatites, and easily leachable ion-adsorption clays. The reason is the similarity in the embodied energy in the chemicals used for leaching, dissolution and separation.

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How to Sustain Mineral Resources: Beneficiation and Mineral Engineering Opportunities

The sustainability of a mineral resource depends, among other aspects, on what the mineral in question will be used for, price fluctuations, future resource requirements, and downstream manufacturing. A balance must be struck between the long-term commitment of developing a mineral deposit against the short-term threats of a changing commercial and social environment. Long-term resource sustainability is dependent both on increased efficiency, which improves profitability, and on revitalizing marginal mines. This is illustrated through breakthroughs in the processing of low-grade copper and refractory gold ores, as well as nickel laterite ores. Retreatment of mine wastes and tailings can also increase the sustainability of mining activity. Ongoing research and development is also helping to sustain mineral resource exploitation.

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Mineral Resources and Sustainable Development

Mineral resources have been used for millennia and are a key to society’s development. With the growing importance of new technologies and the energy revolution, questions have arisen regarding the future availability of resources of metals and industrial minerals. As discovering large high-grade deposits has become increasingly rare, the concept of “sustainable development” will become viewed as essential to extract metals/minerals from new low-grade deposits. In addition to economic considerations, it is essential to reconcile mining activity with environmental protection and to allay the concerns of local populations. This issue of Elements highlights the progressive movement towards an active environmental and societal strategy for sustainably harnessing mineral resources.

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Borate and the Origin of RNA: A Model for the Precursors to Life

According to the RNA World hypothesis, ribonucleic acid (RNA) played a critical role in the origin of life. However, ribose, an essential component of RNA, is easily degraded: finding a way to stabilize it is critical to the viability of the hypothesis. Borate has been experimentally shown to have a strong affinity for ribose, and, thus, could have protected ribose from degradation in the formose reaction, a potential process for prebiotic ribose formation. Accumulation of borate on Hadean Earth (prior to ~4,000 Ma) might have been a key step in the chemical evolution of the biotic sugar. Proto-arcs are suggested as a geological setting sufficiently rich in borate to stabilize ribose during the Hadean.

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Tripping the Light Fantastic: Organoboron Compounds

Small molecules containing boron can play all sorts of roles in chemistry, biology and materials science. Molecular boron compounds display a wide range of unusual and fascinating structures, and their chemical reactivity can be very different from that of boron’s next-door neighbour carbon. Some of the reasons for this will be considered and illustrated through applications in energy, medicine and new materials. The boron dipyrrins, also known as BODIPYs, are a prime example. They are strongly fluorescent when excited by illumination and are widely used as fluorescent tags in biology and as biosensors. More recently, they have been studied for their energy transfer properties in light-harvesting applications.

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Origin and Distribution of Evaporite Borates: The Primary Economic Sources of Boron

Naturally occurring borates are the major economic source of boron. Borates were first used over 4,000 years ago in precious-metal working and are now essential components of modern industry. Although borates have been exploited from other sources, three minerals from non-marine evaporites now form the major commercial sources of borate – borax, colemanite and ulexite. These major commercial deposits are associated with Neogene volcanism in tectonically active extensional regions at plate boundaries. The most important continental borate provinces are located in the USA, Argentina, Chile, Peru, and China, with the largest borate reserves in the world being found in western Anatolia (Turkey).

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Boron Isotopes: A “Paleo-pH Meter” for Tracking Ancient Atmospheric CO2

The boron isotope composition of calcium carbonate shells of marine organisms has the unique potential to record surface ocean pH, allowing the calculation of atmospheric pCO2 due to the established relationship between pH and the partial pressure of (atmospheric) CO2 (pCO2). This “paleo-pH meter” allows scientists to produce a record of the natural fluctuations of atmospheric pCO2 over geologic time, which will help us better understand the impacts of the recent anthropogenic addition of CO2 to Earth’s atmosphere. Towards this end, a tremendous effort to understand the systematics of boron uptake in marine carbonates is underway. Here, we review the potential of boron isotopes to constrain ocean pH and, thus, atmospheric pCO2.

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