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December 19, 2017

It would be no exaggeration to say that without minerals, no aspect of our daily lives would be possible.

From the high-tech devices we use to access the information superhighway to the cars and trucks we use to drive the freeways, from the urban jungle to rural farms, every aspect of our lives relies on minerals. Thus, access to sufficient supplies of these minerals is a crucial part of keeping our economy and our security running.

In this new volume, entitled Critical Minerals of the United States, USGS geologists provide the latest and greatest on the geology and resources of 23 mineral commodities deemed critical to the economy and security of the United States. This work is meant to provide decision-makers, researchers, and economists with the tools they need to make informed choices about the mineral mix that fuels our society.

Image shows a chart of the elements used in computer chips over time
The number of elements used in computer chip technology  has changed: 12 in the 1980s, 16 in the 1990s, and more than 60 by the 2000s. (Public domain.)

What is Critical?

USGS tracks the industries of about 88 different mineral commodities, but not all of these are considered critical. So what makes the 23 in this report critical?

Mineral commodities that have important uses and no viable substitutes, yet face potential disruption in supply, are defined as critical to the Nation’s economic and national security. A mineral commodity’s importance and the nature of its supply chain can change with time, such that a mineral commodity that may have been considered critical 25 years ago may not be critical now, and one considered critical now may not be so in the future.

A good example of this is aluminum. Aluminum has always been one of the most common elements in the Earth’s crust, but it has not always been so easily obtained. In fact, the ceilings of the Library of Congress and the crown of the Washington Monument were once covered in aluminum as a symbol of status, because aluminum was worth more than silver. However, once scientists figured out how to extract aluminum from bauxite ore, aluminum suddenly became much easier to produce, and its value plummeted in turn.

As Time Goes By

This report updates another USGS report from 1973, which was published when many of the commodities that are covered in this new volume were only of minor importance. Today, advanced technologies have increased the demand for and production of mineral commodities for nearly all elements in the periodic table.  

For instance, in the 1970s, rare-earth elements had few uses outside of some specialty fields, and were produced mostly in the United States. Today, rare-earth elements are integral to nearly all high-end electronics and are produced almost entirely in China.

Since 1973, there has also been a significant increase in knowledge about geologic and environmental issues related to production and use. This report addresses the sustainable development of each mineral commodity in order that the current needs of the Nation can be met without limiting the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

For each mineral commodity, the authors address how the commodity is used, the location of identified resources and their distribution nationally and globally, the state of current geologic knowledge, potential for finding additional deposits, and geoenvironmental issues that may be related to the production and uses of these mineral commodities.

Access the report here.

Meet the Minerals

So what are the 23 minerals and why are they critical? Read on:


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