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Urban Mining – No Panacea but Important Piece of the Resource Strategy Puzzle

Advances in materials science continue to transform the way we use metals and minerals, and in doing so, also change the supply and demand scenarios for many materials.

As we recently pointed out on the ARPN blog, demand for Cobalt has been soaring thanks to its applications in battery technology and the growing popularity of electronic vehicles.  Meanwhile, supply of Cobalt is fraught with several issues, not least the geographic origin of much of the Cobalt we use today – the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a Central African nation rife with conflict.

Critics have long lamented production conditions in a number of artisanal Cobalt mining operations in the country, which involve unsafe labor conditions, poor environmental standards, triggering many tech companies relying on Cobalt for the production of their products to seek other sources.

Which in the present climate, is easier said than done.  While there are several promising mining projects in North America and Australia, more than 90 percent of the Cobalt refined in China (which is the largest Cobalt consumer in the world) is sourced from the DRC, which holds the largest known Cobalt reserves on the planet — meaning finding alternative sources of primary Cobalt is a positive development, but no silver bullet.

Enter Urban Mining.   While it sounds a bit like a hipster term for rummaging through yard sales in the suburbs, the term describes a process that is setting itself up to be a means by which we may be able to further “close the loop” of the circular economy,” which “thrives on sustainability and focuses mainly on refining design production and recycling to ensure that little to no waste results.”

 A recent European Innovation Partnership on Raw Materials paper defined the urban mining concept as follows:

“As waste continues to grow, so does the amount of resources trapped within wasted products, some of them rich in minerals, metals and other valuable materials. Many resource-rich products are consumed and disposed of in urban regions, transforming cities into resource “mines” which could be sourced for secondary resources to be reintegrated back into the supply chain. With this in mind, a variety of formal and informal actors have begun to reclaim value from these urban mines. The process of reclaiming resources from products, buildings and waste is known as urban mining.” 

A key component of Lithium-ion battery technology, Cobalt is one of the materials that end up in landfills as part of discarded end-of-life electrical and electronic devices, and as such, among others, is a prime candidate for urban mining.

While recovering tech and precious metals from consumer electronics is fraught with challenges – drawbacks like environmental damage in the process of dissolving circuit boards during metal extraction come to mind – research to improve mining processing techniques and recovery and reclamation of materials are well underway.

 For example, earlier this year, researchers at the International Islamic University Malaysia published their findings on the development of a new way to “extract the lithium and the cobalt that make up the bulk of the metal components of [rechargeable] batteries.”

Closer to home — in the U.S., that is — there is the current collaboration between the Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Institute (CMI) and Rio Tinto, one strand of which is exploring better methods of extracting critical metals from eWaste.

Urban mining will by no means obviate the need for traditional mining and is as such not a panacea for supply woes.  With innovations in the field and concerted efforts to not only improve extraction technologies, but to also develop products and materials in ways that lend themselves to easier reclamation of metals, it does, however, represent a viable opportunity to alleviate pressures – and as such deserves to be factored into any comprehensive mineral resource strategy.