How do we extract minerals?

The primary methods used to extract minerals from the ground are: 

  1. Underground mining
  2. Surface (open pit) mining
  3. Placer mining 

The location and shape of the deposit, strength of the rock, ore grade, mining costs, and current market price of the commodity are some of the determining factors for selecting which mining method to use.

Higher-grade metallic ores found in veins deep under the Earth’s surface can be profitably mined using underground methods, which tend to be more expensive. Large tabular-shaped ore bodies or ore bodies lying more than 1,000 feet (300 m) below the surface are generally mined underground as well. The rock is drilled and blasted, then moved to the surface by truck, belt conveyor, or elevator. Once at the surface, the material is sent to a mill to separate the ore from the waste rock.

Lower grade metal ores found closer to the surface can be profitably mined using surface mining methods, which generally cost less than underground methods. Many industrial minerals are also mined this way, as these ores are usually low in value and were deposited at or near the Earth’s surface. In a surface mine, hard rock must be drilled and blasted, although some minerals are soft enough to mine without blasting. 

Placer mining is used to recover valuable minerals from sediments in present-day river channels, beach sands, or ancient stream deposits. More than half of the world’s titanium comes from placer mining of beach dunes and sands. In placer operations, the mined material is washed and sluiced to concentrate the heavier minerals.

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Where can I find information about mineral commodities?

For statistical information about mineral commodities, visit the USGS Commodity Statistics and Information website. For locations outside the United States, the USGS International Minerals Statistics and Information website is the best starting point.

What is the difference between a rock and a mineral?

A mineral is a naturally occurring inorganic element or compound having an orderly internal structure and characteristic chemical composition, crystal form, and physical properties. Common minerals include quartz, feldspar, mica, amphibole, olivine, and calcite. A rock is an aggregate of one or more minerals, or a body of undifferentiated mineral...

How much silver has been found in the world?

Of the 1,740,000 metric tons of silver discovered to date, 55% is found in just four countries on earth. All the silver discovered thus far would fit in a cube 55 meters on a side. Learn more at the USGS commodity website for silver .

How much gold has been found in the world?

About 244,000 metric tons of gold has been discovered to date (187,000 metric tons historically produced plus current underground reserves of 57,000 metric tons). Most of that gold has come from just three countries: China, Australia, and South Africa. The United States ranked fourth in gold production in 2016. All of the gold discovered thus far...

How much copper has been found in the world?

To date, roughly 700 million metric tons of copper have been produced around the world. This would fit into a cube measuring about 430 meters on a side. Identified deposits contain an estimated 2.1 billion metric tons of additional copper, which brings the total amount of discovered copper to 2.8 billion metric tons. This would fit into a cube...

How many pounds of minerals are required by the average person in a year?

To maintain our standard of living, each person in the United States requires over 38,449 pounds of minerals each year: 9,426 pounds of stone 6,768 pounds of sand and gravel 655 pounds of cement 142 pounds of clays 338 pounds of salt 244 pounds of iron ore 195 pounds of phosphate rock 34 pounds of soda ash 28 pounds of aluminum 13 pounds of copper...

How large is a lifetime supply of minerals for the average person?

At today's level of consumption, the average newborn infant will need a lifetime supply of 800 pounds of lead, 750 pounds of zinc, 1,500 pounds of copper, 3,593 pounds of aluminum, 32,700 pounds of iron, 26,550 pounds of clays, 28,213 pounds of salt, and 1,238,101 pounds of stone, sand, gravel, and cement.

Does the USGS have reports on the background levels of elements in soils and other surficial materials?

The following USGS products will be helpful in determining the background levels of various elements in soils and other surficial materials: Geochemical and Mineralogical Data for Soils of the Conterminous United States (2013) Data for samples collected at three intervals (0-5 cm surficial soils, A-Horizon soils, and C-Horizon soils) across the...

What minerals produce the colors in fireworks?

Mineral elements provide the color in fireworks. Barium produces bright greens; strontium yields deep reds; copper produces blues; and sodium yields yellow. Other colors can be made by mixing elements: strontium and sodium produce brilliant orange; titanium, zirconium, and magnesium alloys make silvery white; copper and strontium make lavender...
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Date published: January 31, 2018

U.S. Mines Produced an Estimated $75.2 Billion in Minerals During 2017

U.S. mines produced an estimated $75.2 billion of raw mineral materials in 2017 – a 6 percent increase over 2016 – the U.S. Geological Survey announced Wednesday, January 31, in its annual Mineral Commodity Summaries.

Date published: July 17, 2017

Rich, Attractive, and Extremely Shallow

No, it’s not a title for a new reality-dating TV show, but it is real science! It also describes the ideal mineral deposit.

Date published: April 25, 2017

EarthWord–Placer

Whether you pan for gold or rare earths, you’ll get a lot of sand...and this EarthWord!

Date published: April 14, 2017

The Top 5 Mineral-Producing States

In 2016, these five states led the pack in mineral production, accounting for about one third of the total mineral production value for the entire country.

Date published: April 7, 2017

The Top 5 U.S. Minerals by Production Value

In 2016, the United States mined $74.6 billion worth of minerals, and the following five mineral commodities accounted for 68.5 percent of that value.

Date published: May 6, 2016

EarthWord - Mother Lode

Happy Mother's Day from EarthWords!

Date published: February 15, 2016

EarthWord – Ore

The naturally occurring material from which a mineral or minerals of economic value can be extracted. Usually minerals, especially metals, are mined first in ore form, then refined later.

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October 26, 2017

2017 Oct. Public Lecture — Global Trends in Mineral Commodity Supplies

  • The U.S. is increasingly reliant on supply of mineral raw materials from other countries.
  • Advanced technologies are increasingly making use of nearly the entire periodic table of the elements.
  • Dynamic studies of critical and strategic mineral supply and demand can identify emerging potential supply risks.
  • The USGS - National Minerals
...
Full view of Bauxite sample
March 23, 2017

Bauxite

Mineral: Bauxite
Mineral Origin: Les Baux, France (Sample donated by Gary Kingston)
Primary Commodity: Aluminum and Gallium
Primary Commodity Uses: Aluminum is one of the most used metals on the planet, finding roles in transportation, construction, packaging, electronics, and other consumer

...
Close up of Chalcopyrite, Pentlandite, and Pyrrhotite
March 23, 2017

Chalcopyrite, Pentlandite, and Pyrrhotite

Mineral: Chalcopyrite, Pentlandite, Pyrrhotite
Mineral Origin: Creighton Mine, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada (Sample on loan from George J. Coakley)
Primary Commodity: Copper and nickel
Primary Commodity Uses: Copper is used primarily in electronics, mostly in building construction and industrial

...
Close up of Sphalerite
March 23, 2017

Sphalerite

Sphalerite, zinc sulfide, is and has been the principal ore mineral in the world. Zinc uses range from metal products to rubber and medicines. Zinc alloys readily with other metals and is chemically active. On exposure to air, it develops a thin gray oxide film (patina), which inhibits deeper oxidation (corrosion) of the metal. The metal’s resistance to corrosion is an

...
Close up of Chromite
March 23, 2017

Chromite

Mineral: Chromite
Mineral Origin: Owings Mills, MD
Primary Commodity: Chromium
Primary Commodity Uses: Chromium mostly goes into stainless steel and other alloys, as well as in color pigments.

Ray Copper Mine
December 13, 2016

Ray Copper Mine

Copper mines can be loud and sometimes chaotic places, but they provide Zambia with plenty of revenue and jobs. Photograph credit: Mark Cocker, USGS

eudialyte and bastnäsite samples
April 14, 2016

Eudialyte and Bastnäsite Samples

Sample of eudialyte (pink) within layered vein consisting of quartz, albite, and sodic amphibole, Dora Bay, Alaska. Size of sample is 11 by 9 cm. Sample of coarse-grained, tabular bastnäsite within matrix of ferruginous dolomite, Birthday Claim, Mountain Pass, California. Photographs by Philip Verplanck, U.S. Geological Survey. SIR 2010-5070-J

March 26, 2015

PubTalk 3/2015 — The Environmental Legacy of California's Gold Rush

by Andrea Foster, USGS Research Geologist & Christopher Kim, Associate Professor, Chapman University

  • Why are arsenic and mercury associated with California's gold mines?
  • What types of arsenic and mercury contamination can be directly related to historic mining?
  • How are geochemists studying the distribution and
...
Image: Discarded Drill Cores from the Blackbird Cobalt-Copper Mine
August 30, 2012

Discarded Drill Cores from the Blackbird Cobalt-Copper Mine

Blocks of biotitic meta-sandstone from the lower part of the Gunsight Formation, and drill core from the underlying banded siltite unit of the Apple Creek Formation, lying on the dump of the lower workings of the Copper Queen mine, southeast of the Blackbird cobalt-copper mine area.

Image: Sampling Acid Mine Drainage in Elk_County, PA
November 6, 2007

Sampling Acid Mine Drainage in Elk_County, PA

Sampling acid mine drainage residuals in Elk County, Pennsylvania.  The USGS has pioneered a new use for these residuals that are currently a disposal challenge, using them to filter phosphorus from agricultural and municipal wastewaters.

Image: Abandoned Mine Shaft
July 31, 2002

Abandoned Mine Shaft

 An abandoned mine shaft taken in the Mojave Basin and Range Ecoregion (NV) in August 2002.