Mining a sustainable future

A close up on the mineral sphalerite

Colloform sphalerite from the Lisheen deposit which was mined for zinc and lead. Sphalerite is the ore mineral for zinc, which is a vital metal for transitioning to a greener, more sustainable future. Image by Aileen Doran (CC BY 4.0)

Creating a cleaner, greener future at the Royal Society Summer Science exhibition 2021

As we move towards the low carbon future, the demand for metals (such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper, zinc, the platinum group elements and the rare earth elements) is rising dramatically. This is the result of our increased use of technology, building the renewable energy infrastructure, including wind turbines and solar panels and integrating electric vehicles into our everyday life.

On the surface it looks like green technologies might go a long way to talking climate change. But, when you dig deeper, challenges arise.

Prof Richard Herrington, Head of Earth Sciences at the Museum says, 'Although green technologies might seem like a departure from mining, in truth these technologies require an enormous amount of metal. We need to stop and think about where these metals come from.'

We aspire towards a circular economy, where reuse and recycling can provide the materials we need. An enormous amount of research is focusing on building our future from recycled metals and materials.

Currently, however, recycling is not able to meet the growing demand for metals that we need for the energy and technology revolution. Therefore, mining will continue to be needed but must be carried out in the most environmentally sound way to supplement the excess demand of metal supply not covered by recycling and reuse.

Dr Alla Dolgopolova, senior researcher at the Museum says, 'Certain metals such as lithium will play a key role in the energy transition towards a zero-carbon future.

'One of our aims are to reduce the impact of mining in our environment is finding domestic sources and stop relying on imported supplies of metals.'

You can find out more by visiting the virtual exhibit at the Royal Society Summer Science 2021.

Organisers of the exhibition

  • Dr Alla Dolgopolova, Senior Researcher in Mineral Deposits
  • Prof. Richard Herrington, Head of Earth Sciences
  • Elizabeth Downey, Science Programme Manager, Anthropocene, Natural History Museum
  • Elspeth Wallace, Education and Engagement Officer (iCRAG), Irish Centre for Research in Applied Geosciences, Dublin, Ireland
  • Prof. Murray Hitzman, Centre Director, Irish Centre for Research in Applied Geosciences (iCRAG), Dublin, Ireland
  • Dr Fergus McAuliffe, Communications and Engagement Manager, Irish Centre for Research in Applied Geosciences (iCRAG), Dublin, Ireland

Museum team members featured in the exhibition

Sustainable mining research at the Museum

CoG3 Consortium

Investigating the recovery of cobalt

LiFT (Lithium for Future Technology)

Identifying sustainable lithium resources for a low carbon economy

Li4UK: Securing a domestic lithium supply chain for the UK

Demonstrating the feasibility of producing battery-quality lithium compounds from lithium found in UK rocks and geothermal waters.

Critical elements research

Working to ensure the sustainable supply of raw materials for future generations.