USGS sorts critical mineral hierarchy
Risk assessment tool identifies which are most vital to US Critical Minerals Alaska 2020 – Published October 29, 2020
Last updated 12/23/2020 at 4:30am
When you consider the 17 rare earths and six platinum metals individually, more than 50 of the elements on the periodic table have been deemed critical to the economic wellbeing and security of the United States, a list that worries the White House and many policymakers in Washington, D.C. To sort the hierarchy of this expansive list, the U.S. Geological Survey has developed a tool that helps identify which mineral commodities lying at the crux of America's manufacturing supply chain are most at risk to supply disruptions.
"This methodology is an important part of how we're meeting our goals in the President Trump's strategy to ensure a reliable supply of critical minerals," said USGS Director Jim Reilly. "It provides information supporting American manufacturers' planning and sound supply-chain management decisions."
To measure risk, the methodology developed by USGS measures the potential for supply chain disruption from events like the COVID-19 pandemic, floods or earthquakes; trade exposure, which measures the reliance on foreign countries for supply; and economic vulnerability, a ratio of an industry's expenditure on a given commodity relative to that industry's profitability.
In 2018, USGS identified 35 minerals, metals, and groups of elements as critical to the United States. Considering the rare earths and platinum groups as individual metals, this comes to 52 elements, or 44% of the periodic table.
Evaluating the global supply of and U.S. demand for these critical mineral commodities over a decade beginning in 2007, the USGS methodology identified 23 mineral commodities, including cobalt, graphite, niobium, platinum group metals, many of the 17 rare earth elements, tantalum and tungsten, as posing the greatest supply risk for the U.S. manufacturing sector.
These commodities are vital for high-tech devices, renewable energy, aerospace, and defense applications, among others.
"Manufacturers of new and emerging technologies depend on mineral commodities that are currently sourced largely from other countries," said Nedal Nassar, a USGS scientist and lead author of the methodology. "It's important to understand which commodities pose the greatest risks for which industries within the manufacturing sector."
Out of the top 20 mineral commodities on the USGS risk assessment at least 19 are found in potentially mineable Alaska deposits, including two that are currently being mined as a byproduct in the zinc and lead concentrates being shipped from the Red Dog mine in the states far northwestern region.
REEs, battery metals top list
Mineral supply risks are not set in stone – changing dynamics on the supply side, as well as evolving demands on the manufacturing side factor into the risks of any given commodity. USGS's 10-year assessment, however, indicates that risk typically does not change drastically over short periods.
"One thing that struck us as we were evaluating the results was how consistent the mineral commodities with the highest risk of supply disruption have been over the past decade," said Nassar. "This is important for policymakers and industries whose plans extend beyond year-to-year changes."
For instance, between 2007 and 2016, the risk for rare earths peaked in 2011 and 2012 when China halted exports during a dispute with Japan. While REE exports from China, the world's predominant supplier of these technological elements, could be considered normal before and after the embargo, rare earths remained among the highest risk commodities throughout the entire study period.
Out of the top 10 mineral commodities on the USGS risk assessment, six were rare earths – dysprosium (No. 1), yttrium (No. 2), neodymium (No. 3), lanthanum (No. 5), cerium (No. 6) and praseodymium (No. 7).
The top two non-REE commodities on the list – cobalt (No. 4) and graphite (No. 7) – are experiencing significant demand increases due to their use in the lithium-ion batteries powering the majority of plug-in electric vehicles on the road today.
According to the USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries 2020, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) accounted for roughly 71% of the global supply of cobalt during 2019. Political unrest, along with concerns over human rights abuses, weigh on the risks associated with such a large percentage of global cobalt supplies originating in this country.
When it comes to graphite, the United States is currently 100% import reliant for newly mined supplies of this material. China accounted for about 64% of the world's mined graphite during 2019. The next largest producer was Mozambique at approximately 9%; Austria 9%; and Madagascar 4%.
The World Bank forecasts that low-carbon technologies, primarily lithium-ion batteries, will drive the demand for graphite up by nearly 500% by 2050.
The highest-ranking critical minerals are also important to the security of the U.S. For example, the single-crystal turbine blades used in fighter aircraft are composed of superalloys containing cobalt, chromium, rhenium, and tantalum. These critical metals provide the physical and chemical properties that allow for improved design tolerances that increase thrust and enable higher operating temperatures to improve efficiency. They also are coated with yttria-stabilized zirconia and platinum-aluminide to improve thermal stability and extend the life of the blades.
The U.S. is heavily dependent on single countries for all these metals and minerals, which could get disrupted by any number of natural or human factors.
"International trade tensions and conflict are well-known reasons, but there are many other possibilities," said Nassar. "Disease outbreaks, natural disasters, and even domestic civil strife can affect a country's mineral industry and its ability to export mineral commodities to the U.S."
The new USGS tool provides decision makers a way of evaluating mineral supply risks, which will allow businesses to better insulate themselves against those risks and policymakers a sharper focus on the most critical of the minerals critical to the U.S.
It also provides mining companies seeking to unlock Alaska's rich critical minerals potential a guide to the mined materials most likely to be in short supply.