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National view: Mining indispensable in age of smartphones, other technology

While it may not necessarily be the case in Northeastern Minnesota, when most Americans think of mining, they think of the past. They envision an old 1840s gold mine or something out of a Wild West movie.

In truth, mining is more about the future, adapting itself to the high-tech era, thanks to digital systems controlling both automated production and safety equipment. Even more telling about this transformation are the high-tech products that depend on modern mining.

From smartphones to solar panels, mining has become an indispensable industry in the digital age.

Let's consider the average smartphone. It consists of roughly 40 percent metal and mineral components, including copper, gold, platinum, and silver. Smartphones also require an array of lesser-known minerals and metals like graphite (used in battery construction) or the thin layer of tin oxide that coats a touchscreen. Overall, a typical smartphone may contain as many as 62 different metals.

It's not just phones that rely on metals and minerals. Almost every technology-based device needed in the 21st-century economy depends on a number of key resources. Laptop computers alone require significant amounts of gold, silver, platinum, palladium, copper, tin, and other metals.

If America hopes to transition to a green economy, including more sources of renewable energy, it's important to consider that solar panels require plenty of gold and silver in their construction, hybrid car batteries need zinc and lithium, and wind turbines require not just iron but copper and molybdenum, too.

This interconnection between mining and high-tech helps to explain why the U.S. Department of Energy has made minerals a national priority, especially since they now contribute significantly to a variety of new energy technologies.

There's also President Donald Trump's call for a $1 trillion infrastructure investment package. To move forward on such a plan, the nation will need copious new supplies of many different metals and minerals, including iron and steel for new bridges. As just one example, the new Tappan Zee Bridge under construction outside of New York City requires 100,000 tons of steel. It's also worth noting that some 6 billion tons of steel already have been used in the U.S. National Highway System.

In addition to iron, there's an ongoing need for copper in the nation's infrastructure, which is essential to the wiring that keeps national transit systems like Amtrak running. Silver is critical to large-scale water-filtration systems. And, due to its super strength, molybdenum is a key component in alloys used in the construction of large buildings and bridges.

All of this is made possible because America's mining sector is more high tech than ever. Mining may seem to be a vestige of our past, but Americans should recognize that the minerals and metals being mined every day enable them to enjoy key products of the digital age, from consumer and energy products to state-of-the-art health care equipment like x-ray machines and medical imaging devices.

Thankfully, the U.S. possesses tremendous minerals reserves, including in Northeastern Minnesota. If managed properly, such mineral wealth can help America avoid becoming dependent on overseas suppliers whose mining sectors follow less-stringent environmental standards. In fact, the United States would face a less secure future if other countries were able to control supplies of key metals and minerals.

As America embarks on ever-greater advances in technology, mining is playing a key role in supplying the raw materials needed to make these new products possible. And so, far from being a thing of the past, mining is now helping to bring America into a new, high-tech age.

Kevin L. Kearns is president of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Business and Industry Council (USBIC), a national business-advocacy organization founded in 1933. He wrote this for the News Tribune.

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