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49 critical minerals in the 49th State

Of the 50 minerals deemed critical to America's economic wellbeing and national security, only one is not found in Alaska North of 60 Mining News - November 4, 2022

From antimony historically mined near the Interior Alaska city of Fairbanks to the zinc and germanium produced at the Red Dog Mine, America's 49th State is a past producer, and a potential future source of the minerals and metals deemed critical to the United States.

Earlier this year U.S. Geological Survey updated and expanded its list of critical minerals to include 50 minerals and metals essential to the economic or national security of the U.S. and which has a supply chain vulnerable to disruption.

Alaska currently produces two of the critical minerals on this list – zinc and germanium – and is prospective to produce 47 others.

Interestingly, aluminum is the only commodity on the U.S. critical minerals list that has not been found in any appreciable quantities in Alaska.

"All the way back to the days of the Gold Rush, Alaska has been famous for its mineral wealth," said U.S. Geological Survey Director David Applegate.

"The Last Frontier remains a frontier for critical mineral resource development," he added.

Here is a rundown of the 49 critical minerals that are found across America's Last Frontier.

Seven battery materials

ANTIMONY – Historically mined near Fairbanks and found in many areas of Interior Alaska, antimony is primarily known for its flame-retardant properties. Antimony alloys are used in lead acid batteries and low-friction metals. Liquid metal batteries for the grid-scale storage of intermittent renewable energy from wind and solar are an emerging demand driver for this critical metal.

COBALT– Associated with carbonate replacement copper and ultramafic nickel-platinum group metal deposits in many parts of Alaska, cobalt is used in superalloys and as a cathode material in lithium-ion batteries. It is estimated that the more than 300 gigafactories for electric vehicle batteries will require 1.8 million metric tons of cobalt per year, which is roughly 10.5 times more cobalt than was mined globally in 2021.

GRAPHITE (NATURAL) – The Graphite Creek project in western Alaska hosts the largest known deposit of graphite in the U.S. Graphite serves as the primary anode material and is the single largest ingredient in lithium-ion batteries for EVs. S&P Global Platts forecast that by 2030 it will take 5 to 6 million metric tons of graphite for lithium batteries alone, which is more than five times more than was mined globally during 2021.

LITHIUM – This lightest of all metals is experiencing exponential growth in demand due to its use in its namesake batteries powering EVs and storing renewable energy. Alaska's prospectivity for lithium increased with the recent reanalysis of historical core identifying previously unrecognized lithium mineralization within the Coal Creek tin-silver deposit about midway between Anchorage and Fairbanks.

MANGANESE – Traditionally used as a corrosion resistant alloy in aluminum and steel, manganese is seeing increased demand as one of the four primary ingredients in lithium-ion batteries. One manganese-rich occurrence has been identified on the north shore of Chenega Island in the Prince William Sound east of Alaska's Kenai Peninsula. There is also evidence of ferromanganese crusts off Alaska's coasts.

NICKEL – An estimated 3.8 million metric tons of nickel will be needed for lithium-ion batteries per year by 2040 to achieve global climate goals. Adding in traditional uses, such as stainless steel, increases this annual demand to 6.3 million metric tons, more than double 2021 global production. The Wrangellia Composite Terrane that arcs from Southeast to Southwest Alaska is highly prospective for nickel deposits.

VANADIUM – Best known for its use in durable and flexible steels for auto parts and tools, as well as lightweight and tough titanium alloys for aerospace, vanadium is increasingly being used in redox flow batteries for grid-scale storage of wind and solar energy. This emerging battery metal is found in magnetite deposits in Southeast Alaska, as well as uranium and platinum group metal deposits in the state.

14 rare earth elements

CERIUM – This element is a major ingredient of the mischmetal alloy in flints for cigarette lighters and is often used for polishing high-quality optical surfaces. Cerium oxide is also often used as a catalyst in self-cleaning ovens; as an ingredient to reduce carbon monoxide emission in catalytic convertors; and in the carbon-arc studio and projector lighting used by the film industry.

DYSPROSIUM – One of the strongest magnetic elements and highly resistant to demagnification at high temperatures, dysprosium is used to increase the durability and reduce the weight of neodymium magnets for EV motors and wind turbine generators. Dysprosium iodide is also used to produce an intense white light in the medium source rare earth lamps used by the film industry.

ERBIUM – Amplifying the signal of fiber optic cables carrying data over long distances is a major use for erbium. This element, along with vanadium, is used in alloys to increase the pliability of metals. Garnets in lasers for tattoo removal and other skin resurfacing, a pink colorant for sunglasses and imitation gems, and infrared-absorbing safety glasses for welders are other uses for this rare earth.

EUROPIUM – This element is widely used to create blue and red phosphors for televisions and computer monitors, as well as producing a more natural white light for fluorescent bulbs. Coincidentally, europium's distinct red glow under UV light is leveraged for anti-forgery marks on Euro banknotes. This rare earth, which is excellent at absorbing neutrons, is also used in nuclear reactor control rods.

GADOLINIUM – This rare earth has unusual metallurgical properties. As little as 1% gadolinium can greatly improve the workability, as well as heat and oxidation resistance, of iron and chromium alloys. This element is also used as green phosphor in televisions; in gadolinium-yttrium garnets for microwave applications; in computer storage discs; and as a neutron absorber in the core of nuclear reactors.

HOLMIUM – With the highest magnetic strength of any element on the periodic table, holmium is used to create the strongest artificial magnetic fields. This property is used primarily in magnetic flux concentrators, which can intensify and direct a magnetic field. Holmium-doped garnets are used in lasers for eye surgery and can destroy cancerous tumors with minimal damage to the surrounding tissue.

LANTHANUM – This lightest of the rare earths is used in making specialized glass for high-quality camera and telescope lenses. Lanthanum-nickel alloys have multiple renewable energy applications that include hydrogen fuel cells, hydrogen storage, and electric vehicle batteries. Each nickel metal hydride battery powering Toyota Prius hybrid cars contains roughly 10 pounds of this lanthanide elements namesake.

LUTETIUM – Rarer and more expensive than most rare earths, lutetium has few uses outside of research. Isotopes of this rare element are used in cancer treatment and for age-dating meteorites. The most common use of lutetium, however, is as a catalyst for petroleum cracking in refineries. Research indicates that lutetium-ion clocks have the potential to be the most accurate on Earth.

NEODYMIUM – This namesake of the high-power neodymium-iron-boron magnets that go into electric vehicles, wind turbines, medical imaging equipment, computer hard drives, and high-quality audio equipment (microphones, headphones, speakers, and acoustic pick-ups). Neodymium-doped garnet crystals are also used in lasers for skin cancer treatment, hair removal, and to cut and weld steel.

PRASEODYMIUM – While it is primarily used in high-strength alloys for aircraft engines, praseodymium is increasingly being used to create durable high-power magnets essential to electric vehicles and wind turbines. This element is also used in the core of carbon-arc studio and projector lighting; as a signal amplifier in fiber optic cables; and as a yellow colorant for glass, enamels, and ceramics.

SAMARIUM – Highly resistant to demagnetization, even at high temperatures, samarium-cobalt magnets are used in high-performance motors, audio equipment (microphones, headphones, speakers, and electric guitar pick-ups), quartz watches, and camera shutters. Samarium is also used in crystals for optical lasers, infrared absorbing glass, and as a neutron absorber in nuclear reactors.

TERBIUM – High-temperature magnets made with terbium are used in EVs and wind turbines. A terbium alloy that expands or contracts in the presence of a magnetic field is used to make a SoundBug, which creates a vibration that turns any flat surface it is placed on into a speaker. Terbium is also used as a green phosphor in televisions, and terbium green is one of three colors used for trichromatic lighting tech.

THULIUM – Like many of the other rare earths, thulium is used in precision lasers for surgical applications. When bombarded by neutrons, thulium becomes radioactive thulium-170 (128.6-day half-life), which ejects soft gamma radiation that can be used for portable X-ray devices. Euro banknotes also take advantage of this element's blue fluorescence under UV light for counterfeit prevention.

YTTERBIUM – Ytterbium clocks are the most stable atomic clocks in the world. This element is also used to improve the strength of stainless steel. Because its electric resistance increases by an order of magnitude under high stress, ytterbium is used in gauges to detect earthquakes or underground explosions. This rare earth is also a radiation source for portable X-ray machines that do not need electricity.

Five critical PGMs

PLATINUM – Alaska is home to two historical platinum group metal mines – Goodnews Bay in Southwest Alaska and Salt Chuck Mine on Prince of Wales Island and the Wrangellia Terrane, which roughly arcs between these two deposits, is highly prospective for PGMs. Platinum is primarily used as a catalyst for scrubbing harmful emissions from autos and refineries, as well as in fuel cells.

IRIDIUM – The rarest and most corrosion-resistant of the six platinum group metals, iridium sells for more than $4,000 per ounce. This PGM is also known for its high chemical and thermal stability. Iridium is used as a coating of anodes for electrochemical processes and as a chemical catalyst. Like platinum, iridium is biologically compatible and has many medical applications.

PALLADIUM – With the unique ability to absorb hydrogen, palladium is used in chemical processes that require hydrogen exchange, such as the process used to produce the raw materials for synthetic rubber and nylon. Palladium also has excellent catalytic properties and is often used as a substitute for platinum in catalytic converters. At roughly $1,900/oz, the price of palladium is nearly twice that of platinum.

RHODIUM – Like the other critical platinum metals, rhodium is a catalyst that is widely used to scrub pollutants from vehicle emissions. Rhodium is also used to harden and improve the corrosion resistance of platinum and palladium alloys used in furnace windings, bushings, thermocouple elements, aircraft spark plug electrodes, and laboratory crucibles. At $14,000/oz, rhodium is the highest priced of the critical PGMs.

RUTHENIUM – Much like rhodium, ruthenium is very hard and is a good alloying agent for platinum and palladium. Due to its conductive properties and durability, this hard PGM is used in highly wear-resistant electrical contacts and chip resistors for computers and smartphones. Ruthenium compounds are also being used in highly efficient solar cells and have similar catalytic properties to the other critical PGMs.

11 tech and research minerals

ARSENIC – Commonly occurring as arsenopyrite, a mineral often associated with Alaska's gold mineralization, arsenic is used as an ingredient in wood preservatives, pesticides, copper and lead alloys, metal adhesives, ammunition, and glass. The reason arsenic is considered critical, however, is the strong semiconductor properties it lends to military hardware, solar panels, smartphones, integrated circuits, and optoelectronic devices.

BISMUTH – Another element commonly associated with Alaska gold deposits, bismuth is usually mixed with other metals to form low-melting alloys used in sprinkler systems' electrical fuses. This element is also used in medical and atomic research. Recent research has shown bismuth to be a non-toxic photoactive semiconductor potentially capable of producing green hydrogen by splitting water molecules.

CESIUM – With the second lowest melting point of all metallic elements, cesium is often used in research and development. This element is also used in atomic clocks, infrared detectors, photoelectric cells, fuel cells, and to remove trace gases from vacuum tubes. The U.S. Geological Survey cites Alaska as one of the few places in the U.S. with pollucite, a primary cesium mineral associated with pegmatites.

GALLIUM – Often found in carbonate-hosted copper deposits, such as the Bornite deposit in the Ambler Mining District of Northwest Alaska, gallium is a silvery metal with an 85.6-degree-Fahrenheit melting point that serves as a primary ingredient in semiconductors used in next-generation smartphones, telecommunication networks, light-emitting diodes (LEDs), thin-film solar cells, and medical devices.

GERMANIUM – As an intrinsic semiconductor with superior optical qualities, germanium is a powerful ingredient in fiber optics, night vision devices, triple-layered solar panels, and transistors for classic and quantum computers. This critical metalloid is typically recovered as a byproduct from mining zinc and other base metals. Teck Resources Ltd.'s Red Dog Mine in Alaska is also a globally significant source of germanium.

HAFNIUM – Found in many of the same regions of Alaska that also host rare earth elements and zirconium, hafnium is a good absorber of neutrons and is used in the control rods of nuclear reactors. This silvery metal is also used in plasma welding torches due to its very high melting point. Hafnium is also used in metal alloys, high-temperature ceramics, and as an electrical insulator in microchips.

INDIUM – Often associated with tin and zinc deposits found across Alaska, indium is a vital metal for modern electronics. Indium-tin oxide is used as a transparent conducting film applied to virtually every flat-panel display and touchscreen on the market. Indium's low melting point makes it a good candidate for alloys. Indium solders are used to bond non-metallic materials such as glass, glazed ceramics, and quartz.

RUBIDIUM – Often associated with cesium and lithium mineralization, rubidium and its compounds are used in biomedical research, electronics, specialty glass, and pyrotechnics. Since it is easily ionized, researchers believe it could be used as a propellant in ion engines on spacecraft. No rubidium is mined in the U.S., and Alaska is one of only six states where rubidium-bearing minerals have been identified.

TELLURIUM – Associated with copper and gold deposits across Alaska, tellurium is amongst the rarest of stable elements on the periodic table. Traditionally used as an additive in copper and stainless-steel alloys, this metalloid is experiencing rapidly increasing demand due to its use in cadmium-telluride thin-film solar panels. The Juneau Gold Belt of Southeast Alaska is particularly enriched with tellurium.

TIN – With more than 100 known occurrences, Alaska has the best potential to establish tin mining in the U.S. Due to its use in solders used in virtually every electrical devise, Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers ranked tin as the metal most likely to be impacted by new technologies such as EVs, advanced robotics, renewable energy, and computers. No tin is currently mined in the U.S.

YTTRIUM – With many attributes similar to rare earths and with geological affinities to this group of critical elements, yttrium is found alongside REEs in Alaska, including the Dotson Ridge deposit at Bokan Mountain. The leading end uses of this critical mineral that is considered a member of the extended rare earth element family are in catalysts, ceramics, electronics, lasers, metallurgy, and phosphors.

Nine alloy metals

BERYLLIUM – Associated with tin deposits, such as those in the Lost River area on the Seward Peninsula of western Alaska, beryllium alloys are widely used as a structural material for high-speed aircraft, missiles, spacecraft, and satellites. Beryllium alloys are also used in military hardware, automotive and consumer electronics, telecommunications infrastructure, and semiconductors. Unalloyed beryllium has scientific applications.

CHROMIUM – Historically produced at the Queen Chrome Mine on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, chromium is used primarily in stainless steel and other alloys, such as the smooth, reflective and highly corrosion-resistant chrome finish on automobiles. The distinctive yellow on school buses, which was adopted for the ease of seeing black lettering in semidarkness, is made from chromium pigment originally called chrome yellow.

MAGNESIUM – While not known to be widespread in Alaska, high concentrations of magnesium are found in the Queen Chrome Mine or Red Mountain mine on the Kenai Peninsula. Magnesium is used in furnace linings for manufacturing steel and ceramics. Aluminum-base alloys that are used for packaging, transportation, and other applications accounted for 35% of primary magnesium metal consumption during 2021.

NIOBIUM – Commonly associated with rare earth and tin deposits in Alaska, niobium is primarily used in steel alloys to improve their strength and is often used in pipeline construction. Superalloys containing niobium are used for gas turbines, jet engines, and rockets. This metal is also a critical ingredient in superconducting magnets in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners for medical diagnostics and particle accelerators.

SCANDIUM – This metal has characteristics similar to the lanthanides that make up the 15 rare earth elements and is typically found in REE deposits such as those found at the Bokan Mountain project in Southeast Alaska. Aluminum-scandium alloys are used for aerospace components and sports equipment. Scandium is also increasingly being used for metal 3D printing and in solid oxide fuel cells.

TANTALUM – Tantalum has strong geological affinities to niobium, and both can be found in areas of Alaska with tin-bearing granites. The chemical inertness of tantalum makes it a valuable substance for laboratory equipment. Its primary uses, however, are in capacitors and high-power resistors for the electronics sector. Tantalum oxides are also used to make lighter glass camera lenses that produce brighter images.

TITANIUM – Marine placer deposits with significant concentrations of titanium have been identified on the beaches of the Gulf of Alaska. More than 90% of the titanium mined each year is used in oxides for pigments that impart a stark whiteness to a surprisingly wide variety of consumer goods. Titanium metal is also used in alloys for the aerospace industry, where lightweight strength is important.

TUNGSTEN – Found in many parts of Alaska, tungsten was historically produced at the Stepovich-Cleary Hill Mine near Fairbanks. Tungsten and its alloys are used in applications where resistance to high temperatures and extreme wear are important. Nearly 60% of the tungsten consumed in the U.S. during 2020 was used to make cemented tungsten carbide for drill bits and other wear-resistant applications.

ZIRCONIUM – Significant quantities of this corrosion-resistant metal have also been found in heavy mineral sand placer deposits along the Gulf of Alaska. Zirconium is used in high-temperature ceramics and superconducting magnets. This metal is also used in abrasives and in crucibles able to withstand thermal shock, as well as furnace linings, foundry bricks, alloys, welding rod coatings, and microwave filters.

Three industrial minerals

BARIUM – Found in abundance at the Palmer deposit in Southeast Alaska, barium is primarily used as a weighting agent in drilling mud for oil and gas exploration and development drilling. Barium also lends its weight to heavy cement used as a jacket around underwater pipelines that transport oil and gas from offshore production, as well as paints, plastics, rubber, and even playing cards.

FLUORSPAR – The fluorspar mineral fluorite often occurs in the same granites found around Alaska that contain beryllium, indium, tantalum, tin, titanium, and tungsten. Fluorspar is used to make hydrofluoric acid for refrigerants, fluoropolymers, and other chemicals. It is also used to manufacture aluminum, cement, enamels, glass, welding rod coatings, iron and steel casting, and as a flux in steelmaking.

ZINC – A new addition to the U.S. critical minerals list in 2022, zinc is best known for adding a protective galvanizing layer to culverts, guardrails, light poles, and buckets. Alloys such as brass and bronze are other traditional uses for zinc. A new use is in zinc-air batteries for the storage of renewable energy. The Red Dog Mine in Northwest Alaska supplies roughly 4% of the world's mined zinc.

Author Bio

Shane Lasley, Publisher

Author photo

Over his more than 16 years of covering mining and mineral exploration, Shane has become renowned for his ability to report on the sector in a way that is technically sound enough to inform industry insiders while being easy to understand by a wider audience.


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