In March 2011, Ford Motor Co. and other major car manufacturers announced that orders for black and red vehicles would no longer be accepted for some period of time to come. The reason was that a patented pigment in the auto paint was suddenly unavailable because the sole producer of the pigment—a plant located on the east coast of Japan—had been damaged by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami and affected by the release of nuclear radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant. Luckily, the cars themselves could still be produced, and the major manufacturers did not expect a loss in profits. But what if the missing material had been essential to the function of the car—to the brakes, for example, or the catalytic converter?
Breaks in the supply chain have long been a concern of Government and industry. Ensuring the supply of critical materials, especially those essential to maintain a strong economy and national defense, is an essential part of the Government’s work.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is the principal Federal provider of research and information on nonfuel mineral resources, and the information it provides is central to the Government’s ability to respond strategically to interruptions in supply. The USGS searches for new mineral resources and keeps track of what countries and companies are using existing mineral resources and how the minerals are being used. For instance, in 2013, the United States was 100 percent dependent on foreign suppliers for 17 mineral commodities and more than 50 percent dependent on foreign sources for at least 24 other mineral commodities.
What Makes a Mineral “Critical”?
All mineral commodities are important to someone or they wouldn’t be produced. So what makes a mineral “critical” and/or “strategic?” These two terms are often used together and sometimes interchangeably.
Criticality to some extent is determined by the industrial and commercial uses of the raw materials. Although currently no U.S. Government-wide definition exists, broadly speaking, if a vital sector of the economy requires a mineral in order to function, that mineral would likely be deemed “critical.” On the other hand, when viewed from a national perspective, a strategic mineral may be defined as one that is important to the Nation’s economy, particularly for defense issues; doesn’t have many replacements; and primarily comes from foreign countries. Usually, the term implies a nation’s perception of vulnerability to supply disruptions, and of a need to safeguard its industries from repercussions of a loss of supplies. Disruptions in supply can take place for a number of reasons, such as natural disasters, civil wars, and labor strikes.
What minerals are deemed to be “critical and strategic” thus necessarily changes over time. In 1803, when sending Lewis and Clark on the expedition to survey lands acquired in the Louisiana Purchase, for example, President Thomas Jefferson instructed Captain Meriwether Lewis to take note of “mineral productions of every kind; but more particularly metals, limestone, pit coal, & saltpetre [sic].” Two centuries later, things have changed significantly, and the list has become more complex. Early computers, for instance, needed less than ten different mineral components. Now, just smartphones and tablets need dozens. The list can vary over time too. Rare-earth elements (REEs), which are among those minerals that are considered most critical today, have been added to the list only within the past decade.
Why Rare-Earth Elements?
Rare-earth elements are necessary components of more than 200 products across a wide range of applications, especially high-tech consumer products, such as cellular telephones, computer hard drives, electric and hybrid vehicles, and flat-screen monitors and televisions. Significant defense applications include electronic displays, guidance systems, lasers, and radar and sonar systems.
Although the amount of REE used in a product may not be a significant part of that product by weight, value, or volume, the REE can be necessary for the device to function. For example, magnets made of REE often represent only a small fraction of the total weight, but without them, the spindle motors and voice coils of desktops and laptops would not be possible.
In 1993, 38 percent of world production of REEs was in China, 33 percent was in the United States, 12 percent was in Australia, and five percent each was in Malaysia and India. Several other countries, including Brazil, Canada, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, made up the remainder. However, in 2008, China accounted for more than 90 percent of world production of REEs, and by 2011, China accounted for 97 percent of world production.
Beginning in 1990 and beyond, supplies of REEs became an issue as the Government of China began to change the amount of the REEs that it allows to be produced and exported. The Chinese Government also began to limit the number of Chinese and Sino-foreign joint-venture companies that could export REEs from China.
Other Critical Minerals
Rare earth elements are hardly the only critical minerals. They’re not even the only minerals critical to the high-end technology sector. Another mineral vital to the functioning of your smart phone is gallium, a soft, silvery metal. Without gallium, the semiconductors that power smartphones and data-centric networks would not be possible. Unlike rare earths, gallium is not a common metal in the Earth’s crust, but it does occur regularly alongside aluminum in a mineral known as bauxite. One of gallium’s other claims to fame is that it has such a low melting point that it will melt if held in your hand.
Another critical mineral is manganese, which is an important metal alloying ingredient. Without manganese, stainless steel would not be possible. In addition, it helps other metals resist rust and corrosion, such as iron and aluminum. Manganese is a fairly common element in the Earth’s crust, and exists in many concentrations easily mineable.
The Role of USGS
The USGS is the primary scientific resource for the U.S. Government as well as U.S. industry to monitor the status of critical minerals to prevent supply disruption. In 2010, the USGS completed an inventory of domestic rare-earth reserves and resources to enhance the Government’s ability to respond to the potential shortage of REEs. The primary U.S. source for REEs is the Mountain Pass mine in California, and advanced exploration projects for new REE deposits are underway at Bokan Mountain, AK, and Bear Lodge, WY.
The USGS maintains a workforce of geoscientists with expertise in critical minerals and materials, including REEs. The USGS continuously collects, analyzes, and disseminates data and information on domestic and global REEs reserves and resources, production, consumption, and use. This information is published annually in the USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries, which also includes a description of current events, trends, and issues related to REE supply and demand.
The past has shown that demand for critical and strategic minerals is only going to increase, and as the world becomes more interconnected, ensuring a steady and secure supply for those minerals will remain a vital responsibility for the U.S. Government. USGS will play its part by continuously tracking the global supplies and flow of these minerals, as well as constantly seeking new sources for them.
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