OURAY – As the saying goes, if you want to find an elephant, look in elephant country. And for some of the minerals required in the manufacture of alternative-energy technologies, the San Juans are elephant country.
Speaking to a crowd of miners, environmentalists, retired geologists, and assorted rockhounds gathered at the Ouray Community Center on Oct. 6, Jim Burnell of the Colorado Geological Survey discussed his extensive research into the minerals required for the development and construction of alternative energy infrastructure, some of which are found in abundance in the San Juan Mountains. During his research into a group of minerals called “critical and strategic minerals,” which congress recently commissioned a study on, “It struck me, given our current situation, how necessary they are for alternative energy,” Burnell said.
Solar panels, batteries, fuel-cell vehicles, and hybrid cars are just some of the technologies that contain elements made of minerals that were historically mined in Colorado, many of them in the San Juans around Ouray, Silverton and Telluride. According to Burnell’s research, photovoltaic technologies require high-purity silica, CIGS minerals (copper, indium, gallium, and di-Selenide), germanium, tin, cadmium, and tellurium (the mineral from which Telluride derived its name).
“Cadmium-tellurium photovoltaics – these would take over the world if one of these minerals weren’t so rare, and that’s tellurium,” Burnell said. The mineral is often a host rock for gold and silver; it’s also used for vulcanizing rubber, in copper and stainless steel alloys, and in flash-memory devices such as those used in digital cameras. Burnell said the price of tellurium “went through the roof” when the new tellurium-based flash memory card technology was announced.
Burnell also cited a solar technology called Concentrated Solar Power that used big parabolic mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays. He said the reflective panels are made of aluminum or silver and that, despite the secretiveness surrounding proprietary information, he has found that the tubes used to transport the solar energy contain molybdenum. Molybdenum is the target metal for a new mine planned near Crested Butte that has drawn intense opposition from the local communities. It’s also found in a large deposit near Rico, and potentially in the Blowout just above Ouray, according to Ouray County Surveyor Bob Larson, who organized the presentation.
One of the elements required in non-baseload power systems such as wind and solar power, and also in hybrid cars, is power storage: batteries. Burnell said that the lead-acid battery continues to be the most useful, though for large-scale utility applications, the most promising is the vanadium redox battery. Also used in the aerospace industry, in superconducting magnets and in armor plating, vanadium is found in a mineral belt stretching from Placerville toward Rifle; it’s also a common element in the Uravan uranium belt of the West End of Montrose and San Miguel counties.
Fuel-cell cars, on the other hand, all currently require a group of minerals called platinum group metals. While there have only been hints of the valuable platinum group metals in this area, Colorado is a major source for another mineral necessary in certain types of fuel cells: zinc.
Zinc is found in abundance in the San Juan Triangle. Larson said that in a conversation he had once with representatives of the Idarado Mine, “They said, ‘Don’t consider Idarado a gold mine. Idarado is a zinc mine.’”
Based on all his research, Burnell has developed what he calls a “hot list” of 13 minerals plus the platinum group metals and rare earth elements, which are required for the production of alternative energy and all of which, he pointed out, are almost entirely imported from other countries, mainly China.
Only four – selenium, common in Mancos shale, which forms the landscape around Ridgway; vanadium; bromine; and copper – are primarily produced here at home. A couple of minerals, indium and the rare earth elements, come entirely from China.
“Last year, China announced they would be reducing their indium export by 30 percent, and they will cease export in a few years,” Burnell said. Indium is used in CIGS photovoltaic panels as well as in LED lights, LCD display panels and cell phones. Burnell suggested that China plans to keep their minerals and build the goods themselves.
“Currently nearly all batteries and photovoltaic panels are manufactured elsewhere, like China,” Burnell said. He said that to move toward an independent energy system, with the abundance of jobs that politicians promise will accompany the shift, will require a major change in policy and practice.
“Achieving energy independence by means of alternative energy technology can’t be done without domestic mining,” Burnell claimed. “Moving to renewable energy technologies is inconsistent with anti-mining advocacy.”
Burnell is on a mission to spread the word about the increasing value of Colorado’s mineral deposits in light of their usefulness in new technologies. “I want to get out and try to show people in the mining industry, I think the possibility is there,” he said. “Then comes the political and social will: Do we want to do it?”
Burnell said he believes that while there is no such thing as no-impact mining, it is possible to do the job in a fashion that is much better for the environment and human health than what was done in the past. “Some of the old timers say you just can’t open a mine in Colorado anymore. Well, that’s just not true.”