Tough tungsten vulnerable to China control
Middle Kingdom dominates supply, demand of critical metal Critical Minerals Alliances - September 2021
Last updated 9/16/2021 at 9:30am
Extremely hard and with the highest melting point of all the metals, tungsten's toughness is legendary. Like many of the other metals that have found their way onto critical mineral lists in Canada, Europe, and the United States, this durable metal is vulnerable to Chinese control.
"World tungsten supply was dominated by production in China and exports from China," the U.S. Geological Survey inked in its 2021 mineral commodities report.
It is estimated that mines in China accounted for roughly 82% of the 84,000 metric tons of global tungsten production during 2020.
Vietnam, Russia, Mongolia, and North Korea round out the top five global producers of this tough metal.
China also happens to be the world's largest consumer of tungsten. By dominating both the supply and demand side of tungsten markets, the Middle Kingdom has a strong hand when it comes to controlling pricing and global supply, something the country has been known to use to maintain and strengthen its control over many of the minerals and metals now considered critical.
"China's government regulated its tungsten industry by limiting the number of mining and export licenses, imposing quotas on concentrate production, and placing constraints on mining and processing," according to the USGS.
Due to this Chinese control, USGS ranks tungsten among rare earths, cobalt, graphite, platinum group metals, and tantalum as the minerals and metals most at risk for disruptions of supply to the U.S.
Despite the U.S. dependence on China and other countries for much of its tungsten supply, North America has significant unmined tungsten resources.
With no mines of its own to produce tungsten, the U.S. depends on recycling and imports to meet its needs for this metal with legendary strength and durability.
As a stopgap, the U.S. government has also been supplementing American tungsten supply out of its stockpiles. According to USGS data, roughly 4,100 metric tons of tungsten have been sold out of government stockpiles since 2017.
Nearly 60% of the tungsten consumed in the U.S. during 2019 was used to make the cemented tungsten carbide, a compound of roughly equal parts tungsten and carbon.
Nearly twice as strong as steel, tungsten carbide is often found on the working end of drill bits, saw blades, wear plates, and other items that require this compound's toughness to meet some of the most demanding conditions in the mining, oil and gas, construction, and metal-working industries.
Tungsten carbide's hardness and density also make this metallic compound ideal for making armor-piercing ammunition for the military.
Of all metals in pure form, tungsten has the highest melting point (6,192 degrees Fahrenheit). Because it retains its strength at these high temperatures, elemental tungsten is used in many high-temperature applications.
Heating elements, lightbulb filaments, rocket engine nozzles, and TIG (tungsten inert gas) welding are among the many applications that take advantage of tungsten's ability to hold up to heat.
North American tungsten
Tungsten resources are plentiful in Canada and the U.S., especially the Rocky Mountain states and provinces, Alaska, Yukon, and Northwest Territories.
Mines along the Yukon-Northwest Territories border are past tungsten producers and are among the most promising projects for restoring a North American supply of this durable critical metal.
According to a 2014 technical report prepared for North American Tungsten, a company that fell on financial difficulties in its attempts to resume tungsten mining in this area, the Cantung project hosts 3.84 million metric tons of indicated resources averaging 0.97% tungsten trioxide, and 1.37 million metric tons of inferred resources grading 0.8% tungsten trioxide.
Mactung, which is about 100 miles northwest of Cantung, hosts 33 million metric tons indicated resource averaging 0.88% tungsten trioxide, making it one of the largest known undeveloped, high-grade tungsten-skarn deposits in the word.
Despite Mactung's world-class size and grade, along with being advanced well into permitting, North American Tungsten had to file for creditor protection before it could develop the mine that would have produced roughly 750,000 metric tons of tungsten per year, which would have been added to the 383,000 metric tons per year being produced at Cantung up until around 2015.
Following North American Tungsten's bankruptcy, a court-appointed monitor oversees site operations, which is funded by the federal government.
Under direction from the court-appointed monitor, North American Tungsten continues to undertake care and maintenance activities at Cantung in order to meet its regulatory requirements.
This work is being carried out in conjunction with federal officials and in consultation with Indigenous groups with asserted rights in the area.
Viable tungsten and copper reserves remain at the Cantung mine and the federal government is looking for a company to resume operations at the mine before the site is remediated and eventually closed.
At least six tungsten exploration projects are located just across the border in Canada's Yukon.
Interior Alaska tungsten
While there is not any tungsten produced in the U.S. today, this sturdy, industrial metal was historically mined in several Alaska locales to meet America's needs during both World Wars.
The gold-rich hills around Fairbanks, in the heart of Alaska's Interior, are one of the past-producing tungsten regions.
In 1915, Balkan immigrant "Wise" Mike Stepovich discovered hardrock tungsten mineralization on the eastern flank of Gilmore Dome about 15 miles northeast of Fairbanks and near Kinross Gold Corp.'s currently producing Fort Knox gold mine.
Over the ensuing three years, Stepovich and his crew dug more than 2,000 feet of underground workings and produced 300 tons of high-grade ore averaging 8% tungsten.
With a substantial drop in tungsten prices at the end of World War I, however, Stepovich put a halt to his hardrock tungsten operations to resume mining the rich deposits of placer gold near Fairbanks, which is what drew him to Interior Alaska in the first place.
World War II rekindled interest in the tungsten around Fairbanks. In 1942, Cleary Hill Mines Co. leased the properties covering the tungsten lode from Stepovich and produced another 43,920 pounds, or nearly 22 tons, of tungsten trioxide.
All of Cleary Hill Mines' World War II production was sold to the Metals Reserve Company, a subsidiary of the federal government-backed Reconstruction Finance Corp. in Washington D.C.
Several other tungsten deposits and prospects were identified near Stepovich's discovery, including the Colbert lode, as well as the Yellow Pup and Schubert prospects.
Most of Alaska's Interior region is considered highly prospective for tungsten. This includes the Circle Mining District northeast of Fairbanks, where potentially "minable deposits of placer tin-tungsten minerals" have been identified, and the Livengood Mining District north of Fairbanks, where Freegold Ventures Ltd. has discovered intriguing quantities of tungsten alongside the copper, gold, and silver on its Shorty Creek property.
Friendliest tungsten ghost town
The Interior is not the only region of Alaska to produce tungsten in times of American need. During World War II, this critical industrial metal was also extracted from the zinc-lead-copper concentrates produced from the Riverside Mine in the Hyder District on the Southeast Alaska panhandle.
Located just across the border from Stewart, a British Columbia mining town at the southern tip of the Canadian province's famed Golden Triangle, the Hyder District experienced a boom of mining activity in the 1920s. While most mining in this region faded in the 1930s, the Riverside Mine was revived in 1940.
Records show that 70,000 lb (35 tons) of tungsten, 3,000 oz of gold, 100,000 oz of silver, 100,000 lb of copper, 250,000 lb of lead, and 20,000 lb of zinc were recovered from 30,000 tons of ore mined at Riverside.
At least six prospects – Last Shot, Mountain View, Fish Creek, Blue Bird, Monarch, and Last Chance – have been identified across a 1.5- by three-mile area near the Riverside Mine, about 5.5 miles north of the town of Hyder.
While mining and mineral exploration is prolific around Stewart, there has been virtually no mining in the Hyder District just across the Alaska-B.C. border since the closing of the Riverside Mine.
The less than 100 current residents of Hyder embrace this disparity with the motto "the friendliest ghost town in Alaska."
Massive, off-limits Bear Mountain
The largest deposit of tungsten in Alaska, however, may lie in the Bear Mountain occurrence along the southern slopes of the Brooks Range.
During visits to Bear Mountain in the 1980s, U.S. Bureau of Mines geologists James Barker and R.C. Swainbank identified a 100-acre area of surface mineralization indicative of a large porphyritic molybdenum-tungsten deposit.
Analysis of 20 soil and 36 rock samples collected during 1985 returned abundant tungsten and molybdenum along with lesser amounts of niobium.
Soil samples collected at the time returned tungsten values exceeding 500 parts per million wolframite, with the best samples containing 5,000 ppm of this tungsten mineral.
"I believe Bear Mountain to be likely the most important tungsten deposit in the U.S.," Barker, who spent much of his career doing critical mineral assessments for the former U.S. Bureau of Mines, told Data Mine North.
The potential of this intriguing tungsten-molybdenum discovery, however, may never be realized due to its location.
In addition to being in a remote corner of northeast Alaska, this potentially world-class tungsten-molybdenum deposit is situated within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, a 19.3-million-acre region set aside for wilderness and wildlife conservation.
"It's a shame that mineral evaluations aren't done before we place an area off limits," Barker reflected.
While Bear Mountain tungsten, molybdenum, and niobium may be stored in an off-limits reserve, past producing mines in Alaska and Northwest Territories have answered North America's urgent call for tungsten in the past and have the potential to answer a similar call should a pressing need for the durable industrial metal rise again in the future.