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October 16, 2020

Just as alloys make steel stronger, research allies make mineral science better. Geoscience Australia, the Geological Survey of Canada, and the USGS are coordinating their critical mineral mapping and research efforts to create a shared foundation of mineral information to help ensure a safe and secure supply of the materials needed for each country’s economy and security.

It is no secret that the United States is heavily dependent on foreign sources for many of the mineral commodities necessary for America’s economy and security. Of the 35 mineral commodities deemed critical by the Department of the Interior, the United States was 100 percent reliant on foreign sources for 13 in 2019.

To address this dependency, the Administration published A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals, and, as part of that strategy, the USGS has begun multiple domestic projects to increase knowledge and understanding of the country’s mineral endowment. But in addition to that work, the USGS has also reached out to international partners, particularly those in Australia and Canada.

Image shows a map and key of the United States with mineral locations marked with colored shapes
Known Mineral Locations in the United States. (Public domain.)

Critical Trading Partners

Australia and Canada are major U.S. trading partners that export dozens of mineral commodities to the United States and have done so for many years. As part of this long-standing relationship, the U.S. State Department leads formal, bilateral, multi-agency, critical mineral collaborations with both Canada and Australia. 

In addition to these bilateral efforts, which the USGS participates in, the USGS has been separately engaged in a three-way collaboration, the Critical Minerals Mapping Initiative, with Geoscience Australia and the Geological Survey of Canada under long-standing MOUs that provide for USGS cooperation with those organizations.

Image shows a map of Canada with mineral locations marked with colored shapes
Known Mineral Locations in Canada. (Public domain.)

Mineral Resource Research Partnership

The goal of the Critical Minerals Mapping Initiative will be to build a diversified supply of critical minerals in Australia, Canada, and the United States. The Initiative will accomplish this by developing a better understanding of known critical mineral resources, determining geologic controls on critical mineral distribution for deposits currently producing byproducts, identifying new sources of supply through critical mineral potential mapping, and promoting critical mineral discovery in all three countries.

An intent of the Critical Minerals Mapping Initiative is to learn more through each country’s past and on-going efforts, and, together, forge new knowledge that can be applied to the three national geological surveys continuing mineral resource research. For instance, the Geological Survey of Canada and Geoscience Australia have extensive experience with nationwide subsurface mineral potential mapping, which the USGS hopes to learn from as it carries out its own effort through the Earth Mapping Resource Initiative, or Earth MRI.

Although the particular minerals that each country has in significant quantities vary, the uses and importance remain much the same. Aerospace and defense industries need mineral products like chromium and vanadium to make steel alloys for aircraft and armored vehicles; the electronics and computer industries require rare earth elements, lithium, and gallium; the renewable energy sector relies on cobalt, scandium, and tellurium; and the medical fields need titanium, tin, and zinc, just to name a few.

Because each country has expertise in different fields, bringing all of these experts together can create a strong foundation of mineral information that can be used by policy makers, resource-managers, industry and others to help meet the needs of all three countries’ economies and security. In addition, regular information-sharing can improve coordination between Australia, Canada and the United States, making the mineral supply lines more secure, reducing the chances of unexpected shortages or interruptions.

Image shows a map of Australia with mineral locations marked with colored shapes
Known Mineral Locations in Australia. (Public domain.)

Mapping the Minerals

A primary strength of the tri-national collaboration comes through developing scientific consensus around important aspects of critical mineral research. Several collaborative efforts are ongoing between scientists with the three national surveys under the Critical Minerals Mapping Initiative. These include development of a global database of critical mineral ore deposit samples, critical mineral systems classification, and definition of key geologic criteria for basin-hosted deposits. 

A significant first step for the Critical Minerals Mapping Initiative is merging mineral resource information of the three agencies. Each database contains valuable geologic and geochemical information. By combining the data, a more wholistic picture can be drawn, yielding insights like where and how critical mineral commodities actually occur in ore deposits, which are highly complex systems. This distribution is currently poorly understood, and better mapping of those occurrences will help target the commodities for enhanced recovery and production during mining and mineral processing.

In addition, each agency is working to better understand critical minerals in terms of a mineral systems framework. The mineral systems approach to mineral deposit genesis provides an integrated framework that considers geologic processes that control the formation and preservation of mineral deposits. Placing critical minerals into this agreed-upon mineral system framework represents one of the most important outcomes of the collaboration, because the knowledge and data sharing between the three geological survey organizations will be transferable to other mineral resource research and exploration worldwide.

Finally, experts in economic geology, data science, geochemistry, and geophysics are working collaboratively under a multi-stage approach to map where mineral deposits are likely to be found within certain minerals systems in basins. This effort will involve coming to a consensus on geologic criteria that must be present to form these important deposit types. Once all three agencies agree on the criteria, scientists will create models based on existing data that meet these criteria, then the data will be integrated in a sophisticated machine learning environment to identify areas that might contain metal deposits within those basins. 

Importantly, all the information and data derived from the Critical Minerals Mapping Initiative will be made available to the public.

Charting a Path Forward

As the agencies conduct their research, representatives will regularly meet to share the data collected and lessons learned, and from those meetings new insights will be taken back to their respective countries. From there, the mineral research projects of all three agencies will be refined and improved.

This constant improving, collaborating and refining of mineral science between Australia, Canada, and the United States will set chart the path going forward. The three earth science agencies will promote a collective understanding of critical minerals science through the aforementioned database coordination and minerals system framework agreements. In addition, as research gaps are identified, the joint science strategies will incorporate how best to address them.

Uncertainties will always exist in the mineral industries and supply chains, but the partnership between Geoscience Australia, the Geological Survey of Canada, and the USGS will ensure that those who depend on a steady, secure supply of these critical materials will have a firm foundation of the best information available.

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