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Op-ed: Dr. Derek Wilton

Critical minerals: Will N.L. seize a 'once-in-a-century' opportunity to help build a better world?

By Dr. Derek Wilton

On March 11 the federal minister of Natural Resources, our very own Seamus O’Regan, announced Canada’s list of 31 critical minerals (not to quibble, but they are really elements; minerals are composed of elements).

Other G-7 nations and the European Union have developed their own sets of critical minerals. For example, the U.S. has 35 minerals deemed critical to U.S. security and economy, and the EU defines a list 30 critical raw materials.

Basically, they are minerals modern societies require to function; the federal government’s designation reflects its concern regarding the security of their supply. COVID-19 has only heightened these concerns by exposing weaknesses in global supply chains.

Continent-scale geology

The destruction wrought by COVID-19 has also led some governments to re-imagine their societies with clean, carbon-neutral futures based on massive, generational, infrastructure refurbishments that have a green bent.

Critical materials are in great demand for this global restructuring. On top of this, major high-tech industries (e.g., Tesla), are demanding that the critical minerals they consume are ethically sourced.

To be deemed ethical, mines that supply these commodities must treat their workers well, use best environmental practices and obey national/international laws.

“The entire province is fertile with critical mineral resources.”

What has this to do with our place in the foggy North Atlantic, you may ask? Potentially plenty.

First, to put Newfoundland and Labrador in perspective, we have a continent-scale geology. Labrador constitutes the eastern edge of the Canadian Shield and the island is the northeastern terminus of the Appalachian Mountain belt.

The Earth is about 4.55 billion years old. We have evidence of rocks dating back to 3.9 billion years on the north coast of Labrador, the offshore oil fields are as young as 66 million years, and don’t forget all that till from 10,000-year-old glaciers that covers our landscape and backyard gardens.

We don’t have a continuous rock record through to that 3.9-billion-year period, but we do have examples of almost all types of mineral deposits found on the planet. Again, all in Newfoundland and Labrador!

There are world-class iron and nickel mines and rare earth elements (REE) deposits in Labrador. The entire province is fertile with critical mineral resources.

“We will need some serious investments in science, technology and human resources to aid the mining industry.”

We have deposits of most, if not all, of the minerals on Canada’s list, somewhere, at some size. (It must be noted that not all of these local occurrences will be economically, or otherwise, feasible to mine.)

We also have strong labour and environmental regulations which allows us to tick that ethical mineral box.

But for the province to upscale and become a key deliverer of critical minerals, we will need some serious investments in science, technology and human resources to aid the mining industry. And, because of financial restraints, we will have to do it collaboratively and efficiently.

Innovation required

Most mineral deposits exposed at the Earth’s surface have been found; new resources yet to be extracted are hidden in buried bedrock.

To find and develop these concealed critical minerals, mine operators require new, as-yet undeveloped technologies.

Essentially, we need to create techniques to “see” through the overlying rock/sediment/vegetation/water cover. We also need to invent procedures to cleanly process critical minerals from new, and known, unworked deposits.

Our post-secondary institutions have had some success in these endeavours. At Memorial, the Department of Process Engineering has developed groundbreaking (pun intended) applications, including narrow-vein mining.

Researchers in Memorial’s Department of Earth Sciences and CREAIT developed exploration techniques for the study of indicator minerals in surficial sediments like tills and gravels that can be used to “vector” back towards buried mineralization.

The Mining Innovation Network at the College of the North Atlantic (CNA) developed a top-of-the-line hyperspectral analytical facility that can examine old drill core to find new mines and use drones to explore for mineral deposits and to monitor mines and tailings sites.

The Newfoundland and Labrador geological and Canadian geological surveys, containing many of our alumni, laid the groundwork for mineral exploitation through the provision of baseline geology maps and resource evaluations.

Global network

To venture into the new world of critical mineral production, industry will need backup from our post-secondary institutions.

To provide that support, we will need to consolidate and focus our efforts, through, for example, the development of an Institute of Natural Resources that would be a collaborative venture between Memorial University, CNA, the provincial government and industry.

Such an institute should not focus solely on mineral exploration and development, but also conduct research on, and training for, some of the broader tangential topics associated with the “life of mine”: meaning, all aspects of the mine from exploration through to development and production, to de-commissioning and reclamation.

There would be much meaningful employment for a wide range of people from throughout our province in this global critical minerals network.

Will we avail of this, perhaps once-in-a century, opportunity to use our natural and human resource endowments to join a future sustainable and green world?

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