ElementTracker: a digital framework to track elemental flows through the global economy

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: Earth Science and Engineering


A growing population, the strive for economic development and the need for decarbonization and a transition to zero pollution are going to intensify the demand for mineral resources by factors ranging from 2 to 20 by 2050, raising concerns about the availability and quality of metal resources as well as related environmental impacts (Azadi et al., 2020). Until recycling end-of-life products kicks in, this "resource binge" requires an increase in production rates: we need to mine more in the next 30 years than over the last 100 years. A shift of energy sources (wind, solar, nuclear) is also imposing a change in the mineral resource mix needed to fuel the economy. Out goes oil, coal. In comes more iron, aluminium, zinc, copper, nickel, cobalt or lithium for example. Depending on political choices, one could also expect more radioactive uranium and its degradation products. This shift will induce a massive reorganization of global mineral supply chains and a transformative restructuring of our collective waste management strategy.
This project aims to develop a full digital environment capable of identifying mining activity from space imagery and to track the flow of elements through the economy, from mines to landfill, by constructing a georeferenced material flow analysis (MFA) modelling framework set in Bayesian methods.
The long-term objective is to develop a set of quantitative tools to allow assessment of environmental and socio-political vulnerabilities around extraction, production or disposal sites. The assessment will consider the compounded influence of climate change and various demand scenarios, developing on the work on Ali et al. (2017), Lupton and Allwood (2017) and Sonter et al. (2020).
Construction of the georeferenced MFA model will build on work of Nansai et al (2014) who studied the global flows of neodymium, cobalt and platinum. The work will initially focus on the following metals, chosen based on criteria of data availability and societal and environmental relevance by the UNEP Resource Panel (https://www.resourcepanel.org): aluminium (Al), arsenic (As), gold (Au), cadmium (Cd), cobalt (Co), chromium (Cr), copper (Cu), iron (Fe), mercury (Hg), molybdenum (Mo), nickel (Ni), lead (Pb), palladium (Pd), platinium (Pt), rhodium (Rh), tin (Sn), zinc (Zn).
The ideal student will have a strong interest in industrial ecology, geology, and environmental sciences. A quantitative background with experience in computer programming or remote sensing would be an advantage.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
NE/S007415/1 30/09/2019 29/09/2027
2606452 Studentship NE/S007415/1 30/09/2021 29/09/2025 Nicola Gambaro