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Can We Live Without Mineral Resources ?

written by:
Cam Tsujita
Department of Earth Sciences,
The University of Western Ontario

We often take for granted the importance of Earth's mineral resources in our lives even though our very existence depends on them.  Indeed, a popular saying among Earth Scientists is "if it can't be grown, it's gotta be mined."  This exercise is designed to aid students in their appreciation of the significance of Earth resources.

Materials Needed for Activity:
Your classroom

Consider the materials in your classroom.  Look around the classroom and think about all the building materials and furnishings.  Also consider clothing and jewellery the students might be wearing.  Now consider what the classroom would look like if we didn't have mineral resources.  As you identify all the materials that come from mineral resource, imagine removing them from the classroom.  Here are some of the more obvious examples

Some Examples:

Resource Product made from Earth resource
mineral: calcite cement
mineral: gypsum drywall
mineral: quartz all materials containing glass (including window panes, light bulbs, computer and television screens, some eyeglass lenses, dishes and other containers). 
metal: iron (from iron ore) all steel and stainless steel products (could include desk frames, chair legs, door frames, window frames, window frames, shelves, filing cabinets, heating/air conditioning ventilation grates, light fixtures, dorr handles and locks, taps, coat handers, zippers on clothing, and many other things
metal: copper (from copper ore) coinage (pennies and component of loonies and toonies), jewellery, wiring in most electronic fixtures
metal: silver (from silver ore) some jewellery, used in processing of black and white photographs, primary component of dental fillings
metal: mercury vapour in some light bulbs, minor component of older dental work (fillings)
metal: nickel a component of most of our "silver" coinage (nickels, dimes, quarters, loonies, toonies), a component of stainless steel
petroleum (oil, gas, waxes) all plastic objects (including some table/desk tops and trim, synthetic tiles, computer casings, telephone casings and cord coverings, plastic eyeglass lenses and handles, show soles), vinyl (e.g. chair coverings), synthetic fabrics (including rugs, carpeting, upholstery, curtains, clothing with polyester, rayon, nylon, and synthetic rubber as in elastic portions of clothing, some show material, some jewellery

After you itemize all of these thing, you can imagine your classroom disappearing around you !  It should be mentioned that all living things require elements that are ultimately sourced from rocks.  Some elements are particularly important in the formation of our bones and teeth (containing phosphorus) whereas others are critical for the smooth functioning of metabolic activities (e.g.  iron, zinc, calcium, etc.).  Plants take up dissoved elements in soil water and animals can get dissolved elements from the water they drink or their food.  Accordingly, you can then also imagine removing any wooden objects from the classroom, as well as you and your students.

Additional Comments:
One important implication of all this talk on mineral and petroleum resources is that people have to find resources before they can process and use them.  These people are Earth Scientists and include both geologists and geophysicists.  As long as humans need such resources, there will always be jobs for Earth Scientists.