Big Data for missing minerals

 By Andrew Burger

The use of “Big Data” analytics is revealing new, at times profound and surprising, insights across an expanding range of fields, from social media networking and industrial engineering to ecology, epidemiology and counter-terrorism. You can add mineral geology and exploration to the list…

Led by scientists at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO), 12 researchers have predicted where economic deposits of valuable, strategic minerals, such as gold, copper, lithium and rare earth minerals, are likely to occur.
In a paper published in “American Mineralogist,” they also describe in unprecedented depth and detail the processes via which rocks and minerals that form the Earth’s crust, or lithosphere, are created and predict minerals that should exist but have yet to be discovered.

“The private lives of minerals”

In a test case, the scientists explored minerals that bear copper, a metallic element that has not only played a critical role in the evolution of human civilization, but in the biological evolution of life on Earth. Among its numerous and varied attributes, qualities, copper is extremely sensitive to oxygen. As a result, the presence of copper oxide minerals provides scientific evidence as to the level of oxygen in the atmosphere at specific periods in the Earth’s history.
Furthermore, the scientific research team for the first time ever was able to analyze and chart the sequence of mineral formation in igneous rocks that had cooled and solidified from liquid, molten magma originating deep in the Earth’s interior.
Putting a new, “Big Data” spin on the study of earth science, mineralogy and mineral resource exploration, this groundbreaking result offers new insights regarding the “Bowen’s reaction series.”
In what’s described as a series of “painstaking” lab experiments, Norman L. Bowen in the early 1900s revealed how a sequence of characteristic minerals are created as liquid magma rises into the lithosphere.

Copper Oxide Mineral (Sam Droege, Wikimedia)

Big Data, mineralogy and the search for minerals

Furthermore, the DCO research team has been able to predict the existence of 145 “missing” carbon-bearing minerals, as well as where to look for them. Ten of the 145 have been found so far.
More than 5,200 minerals, each with a specific chemical composition and atomic structure, have been discovered, analyzed and cataloged. Millions of specimens from hundreds of thousands of sites reside in the world’s universities, museums and facilities of private research organizations, the scientists point out.
“The quest for new mineral deposits is incessant, but until recently mineral discovery has been more a matter of luck than scientific prediction,” DCO’s Dr. Shaunna Morrison was quoted in a news release. “All that may change thanks to big data.”
Besides serving as a groundbreaking tool for geologists and other scientists, the DCO research team sees great promise in applying “Big Data” mining and analysis methods and technique to derive much greater use and value from the vast store of existing data sets on record. Doing so could result in identifying areas where undiscovered ore deposits are likely to exist, thereby reducing the costs of exploration dramatically.

Beyond industry and economics

“Minerals provide the basis for all our material wealth, not just precious gold and brilliant gemstones, but in the brick and steel of every home and office, in cars and planes, in bottles and cans, and in every high-tech gadget from laptops to iPhones,” Morrison continued.
“Minerals form the soils in which we grow our crops, they provide the gravel with which we pave our roads, and they filter the water we drink. This new tool for understanding minerals represents an important advance in a scientific field of vital interest.”
The scientists’ innovative application of “Big Data” analysis methods and techniques to the world of mineral resources would extend much more broadly, beyond the sciences, industry and commerce. Environmental, geopolitical and other socioeconomic factors and impacts have always played an important part in mineral resources exploration, extraction and international trade and development.
In addition to industry participants, open market access to rare earth minerals, such as dysprosium and neodymium, have risen to the forefront of the geopolitical agenda over the course of the last decade or two in parallel with development and growth of the renewable energy and clean technology industry sectors and markets. The term rare earth is a misnomer, but they are used, among other things, to manufacture the super-magnets found in the world’s wind power turbines.

"Rare" earth minerals: dysprosium (left) and neodymium (right) (Wikimedia)

Efforts to control the supply of various other key, strategic minerals has been and continues to be a cause for concern and social/political activism among communities and environmental justice organizations. That’s also the case when it comes to politicians, government officials, policy strategists and policymakers spanning the fields of international trade and development, foreign affairs, the environment and geopolitics.

Controlling the world’s mineral supplies

In the recent past, China’s attempted imposition of measures to limit and control the supply of rare earth minerals and lithium used to manufacture battery storage systems for electric vehicles, homes, businesses and utility grids, as well as myriad consumer electronics devices, led to an international outcry and their revocation, for instance.
Another is cobalt, a strategic mineral that, along with rare earths and lithium, is used in the manufacturing of lithium-ion battery storage systems. Most of the cobalt that finds its way on to global markets is mined and exported from the Democratic Republic Congo.
As has been the case with “conflict diamonds,” journalistic and official government agency investigations have revealed that labor abuse, including child labor, is commonplace. So are hazardous and widespread human and environmental health threats and damages that result from so-called artisanal or illegal mining operations in which all, or nearly, all the labor is done manually.
It appears likely that other researchers, whether working for public or private sector organizations, could make use of and build upon the DCO-led scientific research team’s pioneering “Big Data” analysis methods and techniques. This may lead to zeroing in on areas of the world likely to hold deposits of valuable, strategically important mineral ores much more quickly and at significantly lower costs than is the case at present. That, in turn, could result in lower social and environmental costs.

SEE MORE: Creative solutions for “Big Data” by Andrew Burger

about the author
Andrew Burger
Andrew Burger has been reporting on energy, technology, political economy, climate and the environment for a variety of online media properties for over five years.