Czech Radio reported today that German scientists have discovered deposits of the rare metallic element indium in the Krušné Hory mountains on the north-western Czech border. The deposits could turn out to be the world’s largest known single reserve.
This would be good news if the Czech Republic could reap some yummy profit from the proceeds and if mining could be done with minimal impact on the environment.
Indium is a soft, easily fusible metal, chemically similar to tin, but more closely resembling zinc. It is widely used in the manufacturing of electronics, particularly in the computer industry for LCD and LED, plasma flat screen displays and in thin film solar-cell technology.
"As indium metal is extremely rare," states the Czech Radio report, "it also extremely expensive, currently selling for around 700 euros a kilo – a ten-fold increase on prices a mere five years ago."
It is estimated that the extraction could begin in approximately three years, provided the price of zinc and tin, the other metals with which the indium is mixed, goes up, as it is predicted to do.
I am imagining the investors lining up at the speed of lightning. My prediction is that many of the local residents would likely support the drilling, if it gets the go-ahead, hoping for job offers, because the north-western region of the country has a solid history of mining and the largest unemployment rate of the entire Czech Republic (more than 10%).
Dr. Thomas Seifert, a member of the German team from the Freiberg Mining Academy that surveyed the site, was quoted in the article as saying that underground mining technologies "are so highly developed that the environmental impact is very, very low.”
Indeed, in my search around for information on the toxicity of indium, I have found that indium is considered a non-toxic substance, though some indium compounds are highly toxic.
According to a 2004 U.S. Department of the Interior Geological Survey, "metallic indium and most of its compounds are relatively inert and are not considered to be hazardous in industrial use. Exceptions include nitrogen dioxide, which may explode in the presence of indium. Some of the advanced semiconductor materials that contain indium must be considered toxic, not for their indium content, but for the antimony and arsenic components of the compounds, which include gallium indium arsenide phosphide, indium-gallium arsenide, and indium antimonide."
The most problematic aspect of indium production is the use of highly toxic chemicals in the extraction process. China, for example, which is the world's second largest indium producer after Canada, has a history of spills of toxic waste from the process of extracting indium from zinc slag. Though well-designed and carefully managed processing plants have the capability of recycling much of the material used for the refining, accidents and leaks can happen and waste still exists. We in the Czech Republic don't have a very good history of environmental conscientiousness on the part of industry. That coupled with corruptibility is not a very good combination.
Other issues that come to mind as far as building and operating mines are environmental destruction as well as excessive uses of resources, including energy and water for the extraction process. Furthermore there is the pollution resulting from the release of sulfur dioxide into the air by the processing plant. More research for on the environmental impacts of mining to come.