Commercial Uses of Minerals





            There are a variety of commercial uses of minerals. Minerals are used by humans in their everyday lives in industry, food applications, and medicine.

            In industry, Aluminum is extracted from bauxite and is used in the automotive, airplane, bottling, and canning industries. Arsenic is used in cotton production. Dolomite is widely used in agriculture, chemical and industrial applications, and cement construction (1).

            In foods, minerals are essential for human body growth. Macrominerals, such as calcium and phosphorous, along with trace minerals like iron and copper, are elements found in mineral compounds that have been broken down for our consumption.

            For medicinal purposes, minerals exhibit both therapeutic and healing properties. Minerals, such as quartz and amber, are used to cure various diseases. Minerals, such as calcium, iron, and phosphorus, are used for the proper functioning of the human body and for maintaining human organs, such as teeth and bones (1).

            This article will examine some of the uses of minerals in several different types of commercial applications.


Use of Minerals in Industry


            There are many minerals and their constituent elements used in industrial processes. The following provide just a few examples of their many applications.

            Manganese (Mn) is essential to iron and steel production. Also used in the making of manganese ferroalloys. Construction, machinery and transportation end uses account for most U.S. consumption of manganese. Manganese is a hard, silvery white metal with a melting point of 1,244 °C (2,271 °F). Ordinarily too brittle to be of structural value itself, it is an essential agent in steelmaking, in which it removes impurities such as sulfur and oxygen and adds important physical properties to the metal. For these purposes it is most often employed as a ferromanganese or silicomanganese alloy; as a pure metal it is added to certain nonferrous alloys (2).

            Aluminum (Al) is the most abundant metal element in Earth’s crust. Bauxite ore is the main source of aluminum and must be imported from Jamaica, Guinea, Brazil, Guyana, etc. In nature it occurs chemically combined with oxygen and other elements. In the pure state it is soft and ductile, but it can be alloyed with many other elements to increase strength and provide a number of useful properties (1).  Aluminum is used in primarily in transportation (automobiles), packaging, building/construction, electrical, machinery and other uses.

            Fluorite (CaF2) is used in production of hydrofluoric acid (HF). This acid is used in the pottery, ceramics, optical, electroplating and plastics industries. It is also used in the metallurgical treatment of bauxite; as a flux in open-hearth steel furnaces and in metal smelting. In addition, it is used in carbon electrodes; emery wheels; electric arc welders; toothpaste; and paint pigment. It is a key ingredient in the processing of aluminum and uranium (3).

            Halite (NaCl) is used in human and animal diet, food seasoning and food preservation. It is also used to prepare sodium hydroxide, soda ash, caustic soda, hydrochloric acid, chlorine, and metallic sodium. In addition, it is used in ceramic glazes; metallurgy, curing of hides; mineral waters; soap manufacturing and home water softeners. Further uses include highway de-icing, photography, and optical parts in scientific equipment. Single crystals are used for spectroscopy, ultraviolet and infrared transmission (3).

            The above are just some examples of the many ways society uses minerals and elements as part of industrial applications.



Minerals and the Food Industry

          Minerals are substances found in food that our bodies need for growth and health. The two kinds of minerals are: macrominerals and trace minerals. These are either found naturally in foods or added as supplements.

             Macrominerals are minerals your body needs in large amounts. They include calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium, and chloride. Trace minerals are needed in smaller amounts. These include iron, copper, iodine, zinc, fluoride, and selenium.

            All of the above once existed as mineral compounds found in nature. Calcium is found in the mineral calcite, which makes up the sedimentary rock limestone. Sodium and Potassium are found together in the compound called halite, which form rock salt deposits.

            The majority of these minerals are found naturally in food. They can found in plants that have taken up the minerals from soil during their growth. The mineral is then stored in the plant fibers. When the plant is consumed by humans, the mineral is taken up by the human body. They can also be found in animals that humans eat. For example, beef is a significant source of the minerals iron and zinc.

            All of the above minerals are needed in the body for sustained health. For example, the macromineral calcium is primarily derived from dairy products. The human body needs calcium to build and maintain strong bones. The heart, muscles and nerves also need calcium to function properly (4). Some studies suggest that calcium, along with vitamin D, may have benefits beyond bone health: perhaps protecting against cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure. But evidence about such health benefits is not definitive. If the body does not get enough calcium, there can be health problems related to weak bones. For example, children may not reach their full potential adult height. In addition, adults may have low bone mass, which is a risk factor for osteoporosis. Many Americans don’t get enough calcium in their diets. Children and adolescent girls are at particular risk, but so are adults age 50 and older.

            An example of an important trace mineral in food is iron. The main health benefit of a diet high in iron is the formation of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the principal carrier of oxygen throughout the body and gives the dark red color to blood (5).

            Another important health benefit of iron is that it acts as a carrier of oxygen and helps transfer oxygen from one body cell to another. This is a critical function of iron as oxygen is required by each and every body part to perform routine body functions.

            In addition, Iron is a vital element for muscle health and is found in myoglobin, a muscle protein. Myoglobin carries oxygen from hemoglobin and diffuses it throughout muscle cells. This is required for contraction of muscles.

            Finally, our brain uses approximately 20% of the oxygen in our bloodstream. Iron helps supply oxygen to blood making it very important for brain health.

      These are just a few examples of the types of minerals in food and why humans need them. One must keep in mind they are all necessary for balanced human health.

Minerals Groups and Their Commerical Uses

            Minerals in rocks are classified by group. Each group has different overall characteristics, and therefore different uses, as follows;

            Native Minerals (elements) are composed of atoms from a single element. As an example, the minerals in the gold group all occur together in the periodic table of elements and have a common crystal structure. This group includes gold, copper, and silver. They all are soft, can be hammered out into thin sheets (malleable), drawn into wire (ductile), and cut into thin shavings with a knife (sectile). All are excellent conductors of heat and electricity, display metallic luster, have low melting points, and unusually high specific gravities (6).

            The minerals in the platinum group include a number of rare minerals. This group includes platinum, palladium, and iridium. These minerals are harder and have higher melting points than those in the gold group, and are highly resistant to corrosion and oxidation.

            The iron group includes, iron, nickel, and cobalt. These minerals have high melting points and are commonly used as alloys with other metals.

            Other mineral groups are compounds, where more than two elements. The most abundant mineral group is the silicates, all of which contain silicon and oxygen. Uses of silicates range from microchips in computers and other devices to ceramics. Specifics examples of some silicates are quartz used in glass and technological applications, and garnets used for jewelry, abrasives, and grinding materials. Other silicates include micas, used as sheets for electrical and thermal insulation, and zeolites, used as “molecular sieves” in desiccants, absorbents, and purifiers (7).

            The oxide group of minerals contains at least one oxygen atom and one other element in the chemical formula. Within the oxide class are several minerals of great economic importance. These include the chief ores of iron, chromium, manganese, tin, and aluminum.

            Sulfates contain the elements sulfur and oxygen. In the sulfate group, gypsum is used to produce plaster, iron sulfate is a mineral supplement for humans and animals, while sodium laureth sulfate is used in detergents and personal care products such as shampoo.

            A similar group, sulfides, contains sulfur in their chemical make up. Minerals in this group include sodium sulfide used in the manufacture of craft paper, dyes, and crude petroleum processing. Another mineral, zinc sulfide is used in lenses and other optical devices.

            Carbonates are a mineral group characterized by the presence of a carbonate ion ( CO32). Limestone, with its constituent minerals calcite, is used is used in refining iron ore and manufacturing steel, making agricultural lime, making cement, in scrubbers that remove sulfur from flue gases, and the manufacture of soda ash (8).  Another mineral, soda ash or sodium carbonate, is used in the manufacture of glass, paper, rayon, soaps, and detergents. It is also used as a water softener, since carbonate can precipitate the calcium and magnesium ions present in “hard” water. Sodium carbonate is used in the chemical industry to synthesize many different sodium compounds, including sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), sodium silicate (used in detergents), sodium tripolyphosphate (a detergent builder), and sodium hydroxide (lye).

            Finally, the mineral group halide contains halite (salt) and fluorite. With regard to halite, many people think of it only as a food seasoning, but it is also used in the making of products as varied as plastic, paper, glass, polyester, rubber and fertilizers to household bleach, soaps, detergents and dyes (9). The other major mineral, fluorite, has a wide variety of uses. The primary uses are in the metallurgical, ceramics, and chemical industries; however, optical, lapidary, and other uses are also important. Further, it is used as a gemstone and in teeth cleaning products.

Rare Earth Elements and their Commercial Use


            Rare Earth Elements are all metals that have similar electrical, physical and chemical properties that have applications primarily in technology. Rare earth elements are not as “rare” as their name implies. Thulium and lutetium are the two least abundant rare earth elements – but they each have an average crustal abundance that is nearly 200 times greater than the crustal abundance of gold. However, these metals are very difficult to mine because it is unusual to find them in concentrations high enough for economical extraction (10).

            The use of rare earth elements have exploded over the past 20 years or so as they have hundreds of uses including cell phone components, lasers, camera lenses, computer memory modules, x-ray machines), energy (batteries, lamps, superconductors) and industrial (aerospace, caustic cleaning agents, specialized glass) applications.

            Before 1965 there was relatively little demand for rare earth elements. At that time, most of the world’s supply was being produced from placer deposits in India and Brazil. In the 1950s, South Africa became the leading producer from rare earth bearing monazite deposits. At that time, a mine called the Mountain Pass Mine in California was producing minor amounts of rare earth oxides.

            The demand for rare earth elements grew in the mid-1960s, as the first color television sets were entering the market. Europium was the essential material for producing the color images. The Mountain Pass Mine began producing europium and that effort made the Mountain Pass Mine the largest rare earth producer in the world, and placed the United States as the leading producer (10).

            China began producing large amounts of rare earth oxides in the early 1980s and became the world’s leading producer in the early 1990s. China steadily strengthened its hold on the world’s rare earth oxide market, and in the early 2000’s, were selling rare earths at such low prices that the Mountain Pass Mine and many others throughout the world were unable to compete and stopped operation (10).  In 2010, china controlled about 95% of the world’s rare earth metal production, with prices rising over 500% in just several years. That was an awakening for rare earth consumers and miners throughout the world. Mining companies in the United States, Australia, Canada and other countries began to reevaluate old rare earth prospects and explore for new ones (10).

            As of 2013 rare earth assessments were underway in Australia, Brazil, Canada, and other countries. The United States Geological Survey estimates that although China is still the world-leader in rare earth production, they only control about 50% of the world’s reserves. This provides an opportunity for other countries to become important producers now.

            The global demand for rare earth elements used in automobiles, consumer electronics, energy-efficient lighting, and catalysts is expected to rise rapidly over the next decade. New developments in medical technology are expected to increase the use of surgical lasers, magnetic resonance imaging, and positron emission tomography scintillation detectors.  Rare earth elements are heavily used in all of these industries, so the demand for them should remain high (10).

Future Use of Minerals in Commercial Applications

            To maintain a supply of rare earth metals and other types of minerals for our current population of seven billion and rising, we must find sustainable ways of sourcing and exploiting everyday industrial metals like copper, steel and iron, as well as rare earth elements such as dysprosium, molybdenum and lanthanum, most of which were formed in the Earth’s crust hundreds of millions of years ago. Industrial metals that have been used for thousands of years, such as iron, copper, lead, zinc, and aluminum are indispensible now and will continue to be. Humans are still mining vast quantities of these ores that are feeding building booms around the world, where buildings still have to be wired for electricity and data, most of which is still copper.

            Regarding rare earth metals, the fact remains that our society spends an enormous amount of money mining raw metals, transforming them into its metallic form and putting it into electronic goods, only to throw them out.  Future challenges will include recovering seven or eight milligrams of gold from each mobile phone that’s been thrown away and re-concentrating it.

            Alternate sources other than conventional land mines will have to be considered in the future as mines are played out.  Sources of mineral supply, such as ocean mining, that were thought to be unconventional a few decades ago are closer to reality. In January 2011, the world’s first deep-sea mining lease was granted to commercially explore seafloor massive sulphide (SMS) systems, a potential source of high-grade copper, gold, zinc and silver, at depths of up to 1,600m in the Bismarck Sea off the coast of Papua New Guinea (11).

            It seems clear, that even if deep sea mining or extracting minerals from sea water itself becomes viable in the future, that these are still non-renewable resources which are gone forever if not recovered from items they are used in. Therefore, more emphasis on recycling what we currently use will have to be in place in the future if we are to use the same materials as we currently do for products in the future.

References Cited

(1) Commercial Uses of Minerals. Engineering 360.

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(2) Encyclopedia Britannica. Manganese processing.

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 (3) National Mining Association. 40 Common Minerals and Their Use.

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(4) Calcium and calcium supplements: Achieving the right balance. MAYO CLINIC: Nutrition and Healthy Eating.

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(5) Newsmax. Top Five Health Benefits of Iron.

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(6) Native Elements. Mineralogy for kids.

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(7) Oxford Reference. Rock forming silicate minerals.

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(8) General Chemistry Online. What is a carbonate and what is it used for?

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(9) Maldon Salt Company. The many uses of salt.

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(10) REE-Rare Earth elements and their Uses.

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(11) Mining – The future rocks: minerals that will shape our world.

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