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

Entire industries, including consumer electronics, may be disrupted

Maddie Stone
OneZero
Published in
5 min readFeb 21, 2020

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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…

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