Life Cycle of Metals

22nd Jun 2023

You might not think about it but the list of metals you find on the periodic table are fundamental to our everyday lives. But before the metal on your roof or wiring in your computer was ever usable the raw ore had to be mined and processed. Understanding the life cycle of metals helps us know more about how metals are mined, processed, used, and then potentially recycled.

Stage 1 – Mining and Extraction

There are different types of methods of extracting the various ores from the Earth’s crust. Common mining processes, where mineral ore is removed (extracted) from the ground, includes open-pit, and underground. Australian mining companies are required to operate under and comply with various legislative mechanisms to avoid, mitigate, and offset impacts of these practices.

Stage 2 – Processing and Manufacturing

Once the ore has been extracted, the next stage in the life cycle of metals is processing and manufacturing. This is where the metallic element is separated from its raw ore and transformed into usable metal products through a series of processes.

First, the ore is crushed to increase the surface area of the raw material for the next chemical or physical separation process. Techniques like flotation, leaching and smelting are then used to separate the valuable metal from the surrounding rock and eliminate impurities. Flotation involves valuable metals attaching to air bubbles, forming a froth. Leaching involves combining the raw material with a chemical to dissolve the valuable metal into a solvent, which can then be separated through chemical reaction or electrolysis. Smelting involves heating the resultant material to separate the valuable metal based on differences in chemical and physical properties of the metal. The next stage is refining, where the extracted metal is purified to meet industry standards and specific quality requirements. For example, 24-carat gold, which is rare in nature, is mostly obtained through crushing, flotation, smelting and then refining.

Stage 3 – Product Use and Maintenance

There are many uses for metals in our everyday lives. From construction to electronics, and transportation to energy generation, metals play a critical role in modern society. Appropriate use, maintenance, and recycling are all important when it comes to sustainably extending the life of the metals we use.

Stage 4 – End-of-Life Treatment: Repurpose, Reuse and Recycle

To effectively use our metal resources, industries focus on repurposing and reusing metals where they can. Recycling metals from scrap and discarded products is important as it reduces the demand for primary metal extraction.

To promote sustainable use and reduce environmental impacts, it is important to understand the life cycle of mining, extracting, processing, using and then ultimately recycling metals. Metals are needed for the technology of today and the future, so let’s all be aware of the life cycle of metals and the important role we can all play. Learn more about the life cycle of metals in our Minerals Downunder interactive.