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From Grave to Cradle

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Summary

Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a promising tool in the pursuit of sustainable mining. However, the accounting methodologies used in LCA for abiotic resource depletion still have some shortcomings and need to be improved. In this article a new thermodynamic approach is presented for the evaluation of the depletion of nonfuel minerals. The method is based on quantifying the exergy costs required to replace the extracted minerals with current available technologies, from a completely degraded state in what we term “Thanatia” to the conditions currently found in nature. Thanatia is an estimated reference model of a commercial end of the planet, where all resources have been extracted and dispersed, and all fossil fuels have been burned. Mineral deposits constitute an exergy bonus that nature gives us for free by providing minerals in a concentrated state and not dispersed in the crust. The exergy replacement costs provide a measure of the bonus lost through extraction. This approach allows performing an LCA by including a new stage in the analysis: namely the grave to cradle path. The methodology is explained through the case study of nickel depletion.

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