Thursday 25th May 2017

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More critical than ever

April 13th, 2017

The USGS promotes awareness about essential resources and their supply chains

by Greg Klein

Let’s call it Critical Minerals Awareness Month. The U.S. Geological Survey hasn’t actually labelled April that way, but the agency does have a “big push” underway to inform American decision-makers and the general public about the country’s often tenuous hold on commodities vital to the economy and security of that country. Of course those concerns apply to its allies as well.

The USGS promotes public awareness about essential resources and their supply chains

“We decided to do a big push on critical minerals in April largely because we’ve got several big publications coming out on the subject,” USGS public affairs specialist Alex Demas tells ResourceClips.com.

“One of the things we’ve been focusing on is supply chain security, so with the sheer number of mineral commodities that are used in the United States, and the number of them deemed critical, we felt it was important to emphasize where a lot of those mineral resources are coming from and if there are any potential issues in the supply chain, getting them from the source to the United States.”

Computers provide an obvious example, increasing their use from “just 12 elements in the 1980s to as many as 60 by 2006,” points out one recent USGS news release. Smartphones offer another example. Looking back 30 years ago, “‘portable’ phones were the size of a shoebox and consisted of 25 to 30 elements,” states another USGS release. “Today they fit in your pocket or on your wrist and are made from about 75 different elements, almost three-quarters of the periodic table.”

Larry Meinert, USGS deputy associate director for energy and minerals, pointed out some of the sources. “For instance, the industrial sand used to make the quartz in smartphone screens may come from the United States or China, but the potassium added to enhance screen strength could come from Canada, Russia or Belarus. Australia, Chile and Argentina often produce the lithium used in battery cathodes, while the hard-to-come-by tantalum—used in smartphone circuitry—mostly comes from Congo, Rwanda and Brazil.”

That brings an ominous warning. “With minerals being sourced from all over the world, the possibility of supply disruption is more critical than ever.”

The campaign also reveals the agency’s methods for tracking this essential stuff. A USGS-designed early warning system described as “mathematically rigorous and elegant” helps the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency monitor a watch list of about 160 minerals. Not all have been labelled critical, but those so defined can change due to technological development and geopolitical conflict.

The USGS itself tracks something like 90 minerals important to the American economy or security but sourced from about 180 countries. For last year the agency identified 20 minerals on which the U.S. relied entirely on imports and 47 on which the country imported more than half its supply.

Not all the source countries are always best buddies with the West. China supplies most of America’s mined commodities, including 24 of the 47 minerals supplied 51% or more by imports. Among the critical items are rare earth elements, 100% imported, over 90% directly from China and much of the rest through supply chains originating there.

As a supplier, Canada came a distant second, the chief provider of 16 minerals, not all of them critical. Runners-up Mexico, Russia and South Africa were each chief suppliers for eight American mineral imports.

Among the research reports coming soon will be “a compendium of everything the USGS knows about 23 minerals critical to the United States,” Demas says. “It’s going to cover the industry side of things, the reserves, production, shipment, etc. It’s going to cover geology and sustainability. Each chapter on each mineral will have a section on how this can be mined sustainably so we can meet our needs not only today, but also in the future.”

In part the publications target “decision-makers in Congress, as well as the Defense Department and others who use mineral resources,” Demas adds. But he emphasizes the campaign wasn’t motivated by the proposed METALS Act (Materials Essential to American Leadership and Security). Currently before U.S. Congress, the bill calls on government to support domestic resources and supply chains of critical and strategic minerals. On introducing the bill, Rep. Duncan Hunter argued the risk of foreign dependence to national security “is too great and it urgently demands that we re-establish our depleted domestic industrial base.”

As Demas notes, “Since we are a non-regulatory, non-policy agency, we don’t directly influence policy. But we do want policy-makers to have our tools available so they can make the best science-informed decisions.”

And while this month will see special attention to critical minerals, Demas says the subject’s an ongoing concern for the USGS. Some of the reports coming out now will be updates of annual publications.

“We’re really trying to promote the idea that USGS has a lot of really useful information that we put out all the time,” he adds. “This information will hopefully be useful to people when they’re considering where their resources are coming from.”

Follow USGS news here.

Read about the West’s dependence on non-allied countries for critical minerals here and here.

USGS: Possibility of supply disruption more critical than ever

April 5th, 2017

by Greg Klein | April 5, 2017

USGS: Possibility of supply disruption more critical than ever

Many and various are the sources of smartphone minerals.
(Map: U.S. Geological Survey)

 

In another article warning of foreign dependency, the U.S. Geological Survey uses smartphones as a cautionary example. Looking back 30 years ago, “‘portable’ phones were the size of a shoebox and consisted of 25 to 30 elements,” pointed out Larry Meinert of the USGS. “Today they fit in your pocket or on your wrist and are made from about 75 different elements, almost three-quarters of the periodic table.”

USGS: Possibility of supply disruption more critical than ever

Smartphones now require nearly 75% of the periodic
table of the elements. (Graphic: Jason Burton, USGS)

The increasing sophistication of portable communications results from a “symphony of electronics and chemistry” that includes, for example, “household names like silicon, which is used for circuit boards, or graphite used in batteries. Then there are lesser known substances like bastnasite, monazite and xenotime. These brownish minerals contain neodymium, one of the rare earth elements used in the magnets that allow smartphone speakers to play music and the vibration motor that notifies you of new, funny cat videos on social media,” the USGS stated.

Almost as varied are the sources. “For instance, the industrial sand used to make the quartz in smartphone screens may come from the United States or China, but the potassium added to enhance screen strength could come from Canada, Russia or Belarus. Australia, Chile and Argentina often produce the lithium used in battery cathodes, while the hard-to-come-by tantalum—used in smartphone circuitry—mostly comes from Congo, Rwanda and Brazil.”

Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo are also sources of conflict minerals.

“With minerals being sourced from all over the world, the possibility of supply disruption is more critical than ever,” Meinert emphasized.

The April 4 article follows a previous USGS report on an early warning system used by the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency to monitor supply threats. In January the USGS released a list of 20 minerals for which the country relies entirely on imports. Whether or not by design, the recent awareness campaign coincides with a bill before U.S. Congress calling on government to support the development of domestic deposits and supply chains for critical minerals.

See an illustrated USGS report: A World of Minerals in Your Mobile Device.

Read about the West’s dependence on non-allied countries for critical minerals here and here.

Conflict-free tantalum

March 24th, 2013

End-users can help real miners develop legitimate sources of this crucial metal

by Michael Kachanovsky

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Tantalum is not well-known. Rarely mentioned in financial news, the metal is often traded in opaque transactions between processors and end-users. Its worldwide production is a fraction of the output for more common metals like aluminum and copper.

Tantalum demand has been estimated between six and seven million pounds per year, a tiny market indeed. But do not assume that tantalum is unimportant, as it plays a significant role in nearly all high-end electronics. The metal is irreplaceable. It cannot be substituted with other, more commonly available elements or alloys without losing qualities in the finished components.

Conflict-free tantalum

Although not a well-known commodity, tantalum has wide-ranging applications that suggest end-users will take steps to secure
their future supply.

Tantalum production can’t keep pace even with current demand. Meanwhile new products require additional supply. End-users are acutely aware of this shortfall. Since Australia’s Wodgina mine closed in 2012, a major source of tantalum production was lost and spot prices have risen steadily. Wodgina accounted for about 1.4 million pounds per year. Now Australia produces just a few thousand pounds a year.

Brazil remains a dominant tantalum source, with several operating mines. About a quarter of historic world supply originated from the country. The Mibra mine, operated by Companhia Industrial Fluminense, is the country’s largest tantalum producer. But even this mine was limited to processing tailings during recent months while expansion plans were underway to increase open pit production. Mibra is expected to produce about 400,000 pounds tantalum per year, still a relatively small amount of the world’s total projected demand.

Ethiopia was once a significant producer. The Kenticha mine is considered to have one of the world’s largest tantalum resources. But production has been suspended due to contamination from uranium, which caused problems with radioactivity during transport. In 2012 Ethiopian exports were halted and the country is considering new processing capacity to deal with the problem. However Elinito, a significant mine developer with other African assets, recently offered to invest in a processing plant to restart Kenticha’s production. The plant would use a hydrometallurgical circuit to remove uranium, yielding a high-purity tantalum-niobium concentrate. For the immediate future, however, this is still on the drawing board, pending government approval and development of the processing plant.

Mozambique has also been a significant tantalum exporter. Here too, production shortfalls have limited output in recent years. The Marropino mine is the country’s largest producer, operated by the Noventa Group. The company has reported a string of operational problems including severe weather, processing plant shutdowns and unreliable electrical supply, all of which cut production sharply. Mine output has fallen from more than 5,300 pounds to just 1,600 pounds in 2012 and early 2013. While the company states that it aspires to increase future tantalum production, the situation in Mozambique is not unique. It illustrates tantalum’s tenuous supply outlook.

With few legitimate sources for tantalum production, much of the world’s supply comes from conflict minerals. They are delivered by small-scale artisanal output that is smuggled across borders to be sold from neutral countries. For example, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, rebel groups control large parts of the country. They have imposed dictatorial rule on local communities and generated small-scale mine production under conditions so harsh that they actually approach slavery. High-value minerals and diamonds, including tantalum concentrate, are smuggled into neighbouring countries like Rwanda and sold to finance the rebels’ activities. Since there are no producing tantalum mines in Rwanda, it is likely that much of the country’s output comes from DRC conflict sources. One could make the same assumption for several other nearby countries.

The human and environmental toll of mining and smuggling conflict minerals presents a crisis. However, in an age when money is often the only consideration, this human rights abuse is often ignored. The proportion of this shadow tantalum inventory in total world supply is difficult to estimate.

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