The U.S. Could Run Out of Metals That Are Crucial to Tech

Entire industries, including consumer electronics, may be disrupted

Photo: Nikolay Tarashchenko/Unsplash

TTechnology has made us dependent on an alphabet soup of rare minerals sourced from the far corners of the planet. But there’s no guarantee that we’ll always have reliable supplies of these crucial resources. Now, scientists with the United States Geological Survey have identified a shortlist of 23 minerals that pose the greatest “supply risk” to U.S. manufacturers — minerals that, if unavailable, could upend entire industries, including consumer electronics, and set back efforts to combat the climate crisis.

The study, published Friday in the journal Science Advances, shows the surprising variety of metals American industries have a tenuous supply of, from familiar names like aluminum to obscure elements like dysprosium. The risk of supply shocks can be reduced, the authors say, by shoring up domestic supplies of these minerals, devising new manufacturing techniques, and beefing up recycling technologies. Experts, however, caution that efforts to develop additional supplies could result in increased instabilities overseas and new environmental risks.

The USGS scientists evaluated the supply risk of 52 minerals for which good data was available between 2007 and 2016. For each, they examined three main factors: the dependence of U.S. manufacturers on foreign supplies, companies’ economic vulnerability to supply shocks, and the likelihood of a foreign supply disruption. Economic vulnerability considered the profitability of industries that rely on a mineral and their degree of dependence on it, while disruption potential encompassed factors like the political stability of the country furnishing the mineral and its relationship with the United States.

All in all, the researchers identified nearly two dozen high-risk minerals. These include the rare earths elements dysprosium and neodymium, which are used to forge the powerful magnets inside iPhone speakers, electric vehicle motors, and wind turbines; germanium, which has optical qualities make it indispensable to the fiber optics and solar industries; several platinum-group metals used in electronics and catalytic convertors; and cobalt, which helps give the lithium-ion batteries inside smartphones and electric cars better performance. The list also includes graphite, aluminum, together with tungsten and tantalum, which are considered conflict minerals because their extraction finances armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

None of the metals that topped the list are particularly surprising, said lead study author Nedal Nassar, who noted that all of them are on a list of “critical minerals” the Interior Department released in 2018. Still, he said, the study can be considered the “most comprehensive assessment” yet of supply risks for these minerals.

There is considerable risk that the extraction of some of these key minerals could exacerbate levels of fragility, conflict, or violence in the mineral-rich states.

The findings have significant implications for U.S. foreign trade relations. Notably, China is the largest producer for 16 of the top 23 minerals, highlighting the country’s dominance over many resources critical to modern technology.

Alex King, the founder of the Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Institute, praised the study for taking a broad view of risk that considers not just where mines are located, but “major bottlenecks across the entire supply chain.” For instance, he said, the authors took into account the fact that a recently reopened rare earth mine in California has helped diminish China’s dominance in the sector, but all of the ore extracted in California is now exported to China for processing. They took this to mean that the likelihood of supply disruptions for certain rare earth metals would be increased. Overall, America’s chief rival still maintains significant leverage over the limited supply of a group of metals required to meet the growing demand for clean energy technologies.

Indeed, many of the metals at the top of the list will play a leading role in a future powered by the wind, the sun, and batteries. Previous studies have found that demand for cobalt, for example, could outstrip production rates within just a few years due to a rapid rise in the manufacturing of electric vehicle batteries, a reality that could fuel a mining boom in some of the poorest and most unstable parts of the world.

“There is considerable risk that the extraction of some of these key minerals could exacerbate levels of fragility, conflict, or violence in the mineral-rich states,” said Clare Church, a policy analyst at the International Institute for Sustainable Development. Church added that it’s not only the presence of conflict minerals that could disrupt supplies: “[I]t might also be community protests against large-scale mines or local resistance against the environmental degradation and pollution caused by mining in the area,” she said.

To prevent the green energy boom from fueling a dirty mining boom, any new mines must be developed with stringent oversight and community consent. For certain metals, that could ultimately mean more mining in the United States. Nassar noted some of the minerals his study flags are already mined domestically — including at the aforementioned California rare earth operation, and the Stillwater platinum and palladium mine in Montana — and that the USGS is currently engaged in mapping efforts that could lead to the discovery of additional resources.

Many environmentalists are skeptical that domestic metals mining could be expanded responsibly under the regulation-allergic Trump administration, and some green groups see the administration’s recent push to shore up supplies of critical metals as little more than a pretext for fast-tracking mining projects on public lands. A critical minerals strategy document the Interior Department published last year called for “streamlin[ing] permitting and review processes” for critical minerals mining projects, including, potentially, excluding certain mineral development projects from review under the National Environmental Policy Act.

“Unfortunately, the mining industry is trying to gut bedrock environmental laws in order to accelerate the mining of so-called ‘critical minerals,’ claiming America is over-reliant on foreign countries for these minerals,” Aaron Mintzes, Senior Policy Counsel at Earthworks, told OneZero. “Critical minerals policy is simply the mining lobby’s latest gambit in a decade-long attempt to eviscerate community and environmental oversight of their industry.”

More mining isn’t the only way to reduce the risk of supply shocks. For some technologies, we might be able to find substitute materials: For instance, scientists at the Critical Materials Institute are researching how to create strong permanent magnets with more abundant rare earths like cerium. We can lessen the need for new resources by extending the lifespan of electronics through repair and reuse, and we can develop better recycling technologies for reclaiming metals like cobalt and rare earths from dead electronics. Companies like Apple have taken the first baby steps toward doing this with their own devices, while the Department of Energy recently launched a prize for technologies aimed at recovering cobalt from lithium batteries.

Ultimately, the threat of a high-tech mineral shortage is unlikely to go away in a world that’s increasingly reliant on technology for everything from entertainment to energy. Hopefully, with a better understanding of which supplies are most fragile, we can develop more sustainable resources and mining alternatives before the supply shocks start to hit.

scientist-turned-writer

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