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Why Do Minerals Matter?

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Detailed Description

You might be surprised where minerals pop up; they're just about everywhere. We sit down with Kathleen Johnson, USGS Mineral Resources Program Coordinator, as she walks us through just how valuable minerals are to our lives.




Public Domain.


Dave Hebert

Hey, everybody, real quick before we start: Do not forget to enter the Be a CoreCast Host for a Day Contest. The lucky winner—you guessed it—gets to host their very own episode of CoreCast.

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Jessica Robertson:

Hello and welcome to the USGS CoreCast. I'm Jessica Robertson.

Today we are joined by USGS Mineral Resources Program Coordinator Kathleen Johnson to discuss the importance of minerals, the depletion of known resources as demand continues to grow, and the USGS role in assuring the future availability of mineral commodities.

Thank you for joining us today Kate.

Kate Johnson:

My pleasure Jessica.


First, can you please tell us why minerals are important?


Mineral materials are the building blocks of everything we use. Everyone living on earth depends on mineral materials to create products that support our way of life, our health, and the global economy.


I know that sometimes we are unaware of how we use minerals in our every day lives. Can you provide us some examples on how minerals support our way of life?


We use minerals everyday and in every facet of our lives. Do you drive a car, ride in a bus, train, or airplane? Then you use steel, copper, chromium, titanium, gold, platinum, aluminum, silica, and many other mineral commodities. Do you use electricity at home, at work, in the mall? Copper and aluminum are essential for transporting electric power from the power plant to wherever we use it. Our homes and office buildings contain many mineral materials, including gypsum to make drywall, clay for bricks, titanium oxide for paint, iron and copper for pipes, copper for that electrical wiring, and silica for windows.

Some tools we use for our favorite hobbies and recreation also rely on mineral materials to make them stronger, lighter, and more flexible. For example, baseball bats, tennis racquets and golf clubs lighter and stronger because the wood previously used for their construction has been replaced with aluminum, fiberglass, graphite, titanium, zirconium, beryllium, copper, tungsten, and steel.

We also use minerals every day to grow, prepare, and eat our food through fertilizers, utensils, ceramics, seasonings, animal feed. Even our toothpaste and makeup are made from mineral materials-they really are everywhere.

The importance of mineral materials was known when the USGS was established in 1879, and understanding mineral deposits was one of the first responsibilities of the new organization. Much has changed in how we do our work, but it is still a core responsibility of the USGS to provide the Nation with information about sources of these key materials.


You mentioned before that minerals affect human health.  Can you explain that further?


Many of the minerals that our bodies require for good health come from food.  These minerals include calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, and zinc. Mineral-based fertilizers are essential to the success of food production systems here in the U.S. and around the world. To help ensure that we receive an adequate supply of these and other minerals, USGS helps identify the location and quantity of the deposits that host them.

There are also negative health consequences resulting from exposure to some mineral materials or elevated levels of otherwise good minerals. Some of these minerals come from our everyday contact with air, water, and ground in our surroundings. Some of them we are exposed to by man-made disturbances to the natural environment or as a result of a wide range of natural disasters.

USGS science helps local, State, and Federal agencies develop management plans to minimize the effects of mineral contaminants on human and ecosystem health. Examples of USGS research includes studies on the mud deposited during flooding in New Orleans after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita; dust from the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York City; asbestos in California soils; and the effects of recent wild fires on soils and runoff waters in southern California.


Since we are so dependent on mineral resources, I am left wondering what the likelihood is that we will use up all of the Earth's minerals.


As standards of living rise around the world, there is increasing demand for infrastructure and durable goods manufactured from mineral materials. As large economies, such as China and India, increase their participation in the global economy, demand for critical mineral resources is increasing at a very rapid rate.

Meeting that demand requires a steady supply of mineral deposits from which to mine the raw mineral ores that are refined into useful mineral materials. As known deposits are depleted, new deposits must be found and put into production. To keep that cycle going, nations need to understand where the world's future supplies of mineral resources can be found.

For many reasons, it is unlikely that we will actually run out of the materials we need, but it is already becoming more difficult to identify new deposits.


And, how can the USGS help meet the growing demand?


The USGS Mineral Resources Program provides scientific data and information used by decision-makers in government and industry, as well as the public, to make informed decisions that assure access to a ready supply of mineral materials.

USGS reports production and consumption data for more than 90 commodities in the U.S. and in 180 countries around the world. We conduct research that helps identify where mineral deposits may be located in the U.S. and around the world, what kinds of minerals are likely to occur in them, and how much of each mineral commodity might be expected.


Can you expand a little bit more on how minerals support the global economy?


Each year, each person in the U.S. requires more than 25,000 pounds of new nonfuel minerals to make the items we use every day. In 2007 there were 19 mineral commodities that were needed in the U.S. but could not be mined here. We had to import 100% of what we needed from other countries. And there are 25 more minerals for which we had to import at least 50% of what we need.

U.S. manufacturers import these minerals from many, many countries-big countries like China, Canada, or Russia; small countries like Belgium or Israel; developed countries like France; developing countries like India. Minerals are truly global commodities. They are used everywhere, but only occur where nature puts them, so they must be traded.

Mineral commodities are important enough in the U.S. and global economies that USGS mineral production estimates are used by the Board of Governors, Federal Reserve System, in preparing its index of industrial production, which is a principal economic indicator. So, when you hear the pundits reporting that the economy is going up or down, you can know that one of the ways they figure that out is by looking at USGS data on mineral production.


And what role can mineral resources play in economic development?


Development of natural resources is an important mechanism for generating the wealth required for a country to build its infrastructure-roads, bridges, railroads, airports, seaports, hospitals, governmental facilities-those things that underpin a successful economy. Knowing the location, quality, and quantity of mineral resources is an essential early step in that development process.

USGS mineral resource experts have recently conducted studies of the mineral resource possibilities of Afghanistan, with the goal of aiding that country in re-establishing a firm natural resources basis for its economy. Large deposits of copper, iron, and many other mineral commodities are known to exist there, and our experts believe more can be discovered. Impartial information and research results like these make possible informed planning for strong economic development in the future.

USGS expertise in studies of this type, which we call mineral resource assessment, is recognized by the international community and by U.S. governmental agencies that provide assistance to developing countries. Other recent projects have been conducted in Madagascar and Mauritania.


Thank you Kate! Is there anything else you would like to share with us today?


I do have one more thing. I just spoke a bit about mineral resource assessments in individual countries. USGS is also leading a Global Mineral Resource Assessment. Together with geological surveys and other partners all over the world, we are outlining the principal land areas in the world that have potential for undiscovered deposits of copper, platinum group elements, and potash, and we're estimating the probable sizes of those resources. This is truly exciting, because the results of this project will be the first ever consistent, comprehensive, and current information and analysis of global nonfuel mineral resources, and it will provide all nations with a basis for mineral exploration, land-use decisions, and anticipating economic, environmental, and social impacts of mineral development.

Oh yeah, and one more thing-when we're finished this first ever global assessment, in 2010, we will return to the U.S. and begin updating the National Mineral Resource Assessment we published in the late 1990s.

Studies of this sort are essential to understanding the future sources of the mineral materials that are so essential to our everyday life. We are pleased and proud to be international leaders in this challenging work, and know that the information we provide improves everyone's life.


Well thank you for joining us today Kate.


My pleasure Jessica.


For more information about the overall USGS Mineral Resources Program, visit

To find out where various mineral materials occur in the U.S. and around the world, visit

As always, CoreCast is a product of the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior.

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