Try asking your neighbour if they’ve ever heard of nobium, zeolite or indium and they may stare at you blankly, yet these rare minerals are responsible for some of the greatest recent advancements in clean technology and BC miners are set to play a leading role in their production.
Niobium, Nb, (aka columbium), sits in the 41st spot on the Periodic Table. It is a key element in green technology and used in fuel cells, electric hybrid vehicles and permanent magnets. It is often found with the so-called “rare-earth elements,” and together, this group of rare metals have been crucial to developing modern technologies like the super-alloys used in space, flat-screen televisions, laptops, and iPhones.
Having received plenty of media exposure because China controls about 90% of the total world production, British Columbia is now vying for a position in the rare-metal market. Of the 12 primary rare-metal bearing deposits staked in the province, BC Ministry officials believe that nobium has the greatest potential.
Both Taseko Mines and Commerce Resources were identified as the two most advanced rare-metal projects in BC, both having committed hefty resources to their projects.
Zeolite is another rarely heard of mineral now taking the stage in BC.
Recently nicknamed “Nature’s Detoxifier,” it’s been discovered that zeolite is basically a molecular sieve capable of locking in heavy metals, chemicals and free radicals, and it’s high ion exchange capacity also means that it can adsorb plant nutrients and improve fertilizer efficiency.
In the wake of the 2011 Tsunami disaster in Japan, it was zeolite that engineers at the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) began dropping near a water outlet from the Fukushima Daiichi plant to adsorb cesium-137 and reduce the spread of radioactive materials into the Pacific.
Since the global majority of zeolite is produced in China for the concrete industry, the Japanese have turned to the BC-based Canadian Mining Company Inc., one of the few Canadian zeolite producers, to supply zeolite for decontaminating their soils.
As awareness of zeolite’s green potential grows, Canadian Mining has also been fielding a broad range of supply inquiries from across Canada.
In the Fraser Valley, for example, Environment Canada scientists are using zeolite to treat ‘rural smog,’ an airborne mixture of ammonia with nitrogen and sulfur oxide that contributes to local rates of asthma and other respiratory problems. Municipalities have also started using it to reduce the ammonium concentration and odour in municipal wastewater.
In the Alberta oil sands, zeolite is being recognized as one of the most efficient and inexpensive tools for reducing carbon emissions. Natural zeolite catalysts can crack oil sands bitumen at temperatures much below typical thermal cracking conditions and may be used in industrial membranes that capture carbon dioxide emissions using high temperature gas separation at oil sands upgrading facilities.
For BC’s agricultural producers, especially the organic fruit growers with whom Canadian Mining is working closely, mixing zeolite with fertilizer allows for a slow release of nutrients to the root zone of new seedlings, improves plant performance, while reducing root rot and the need to apply pesticides.
The third rare mineral that your neighbour is unlikely to have heard of is indium. Indium is a key ingredient in thin-film solar technology – very thin, lightweight and flexible solar cells that have vast potential due to their ability to be placed on a variety of surfaces or be incorporated into fabrics.
Indium, along with gallium and selenium, are part of a group of metals known as the ‘Hitchhiker Metals’ because they are only available as a by-product of the mining and refining of major metals like copper, aluminum and zinc. The hitchhiker metals are widely used in much of our modern technology from LED light bulbs, to computers solar panels and smart phones.
According to the USGS, Canada is one of the top six producers of indium in the world and BC’s Teck Cominco is a key contributor as one of the largest single source producers of indium in the world.
Needless to say, British Columbia has been one of the world’s major mining regions since the mid-1800s and this tradition continues as BC plays a significant role in the hunt for and production of rare minerals that support the green technology of our future.