SALT LAKE CITY — The Congressional Western Caucus says a new report analyzing the disruption in the global supply chain of critical minerals caused by COVID-19 underscores the urgent need for more domestic mining and processing.
© Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Heavy equipment mover soil on one of the mounds as Rio Tinto Kennecott officials talk about their work to reclaim land after the closer of the Barney’s Canyon gold on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018.
“The global pandemic has demonstrated significant supply chain weaknesses across all sectors of our economy, including energy security and innovation. The analysis released (Thursday) underscores the importance of prioritizing domestic critical mineral development to ensure our national and economic security,” said member Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah.
“Continued outsourcing of critical minerals’ production leaves American manufacturing, technology, clean energy, medicine, and other sectors crucial to modern life vulnerable to the actions of our adversaries.”
The report by the International Energy Agency points out that South Africa’s lockdown initially disrupted 75% of the global output of platinum, which is used in many clean energy technologies and emissions control devices.
Copper mining in Peru — which accounts for 12% of global production — ground to a halt, according to the report. Indonesia, which is the world’s top supplier of nickel, banned nickel ore exports earlier this year.
The report also points out that when it comes to lithium, cobalt and various rare earth materials, the top three producers control well over three quarters of the global output.
There are also stark vulnerabilities in the geographic concentration of refining operations, with China alone accounting for 50% to 70% of global lithium and cobalt refining. China is also responsible for 85% to 90% of processing rare earth materials into metals and magnets.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is again reinforcing the importance of responsible U.S. mineral development. During trade negotiations in June 2019, China threatened to cut off our access to rare earth minerals. Now, the COVID-19 shines a bright light on China’s dominance of critical mineral and other supply chains,” said the caucus’ executive vice chairman, Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo. ”This report should serve as a reality check that supporting a true all-of-the-above energy future in the U.S. will require strong investments in domestic mining,”
The rising installation of clean energy technologies is set to “supercharge” the demand for critical minerals, the agency predicts, and the already rapid growth was putting strains on supply even before the global pandemic.
Clean energy technologies, the report said, generally require more minerals than their fossil fuel counterparts.
As an example, an electric car uses five times as many minerals as a conventional car and an offshore wind plant requires eight times as many minerals as a gas-fired plant of the same capacity.
The most efficient coal-fired power plants, too, require a lot more nickel than the less efficient ones to produce higher combustion temperatures.
Since 2015, the report points out, electric transport and grid storage have become the largest consumers of lithium, accounting for 35% of the demand. And likewise, those users have driven demand for cobalt from 5% to nearly 25% in that same period.
Those demands, however, come with costs.
Congo, which controls the majority of the world’s supply of cobalt, nearly tripled its royalty rate in 2018 and has come under harsh scrutiny for its extraction practices in harsh conditions amid reports it also relies on child labor.
In its report, the agency recommends government and companies take a number of steps to ensure a steady supply chain and greater independence in the arena of critical minerals, including timely investments in new mines, periodic assessments, promotion of recycling of end of life materials to capture valuable minerals, and stepping up research and development in substitution materials.
While the report notes that global oil and natural gas supplies dominate attention, wind, solar and other clean energy technologies are not immune to risk from geopolitical hazards.
Utah has its own role to play when it comes to production of critical minerals and is the world’s No. 1 producer of beryllium, a chemical that is refined for use in aerospace technologies because it is lightweight and has a high melting temperature, said Stephanie Mills, senior metals geologist with the Utah Geological Survey.
“Utah has a really diverse mineral landscape with a lot of potential to develop new projects,” said Mills, who has a doctorate in the geology field.
Utah is the only state in the country that produces magnesium metal and is one of two U.S. states that produces potash.
While lithium is not being mined in Utah at this point, there is potential for U.S. Magnesium to produce it as a byproduct.
In a paper she wrote for the survey on battery metals’ demand, Mills details the potential of some of these elements to be “mined” in Utah as a byproduct of other metals, such as copper or uranium deposits revealing cobalt.
Utah hosts the only operating uranium and vanadium mill in the United States, Mills points out, and while there is not any uranium mining going on, the mill began producing vanadium from stockpiles in 2019. Vanadium can be used in high-capacity batteries used for large-scale energy storage applications.
Finally, Rio Tinto’s Kennecott operations in Utah puts it as the nation’s second largest producer of copper, which is unmatched in its ability to conduct electric currents.
In addition to copper, Kennecott is one of the largest producers of gold, silver, platinum group metals and molybdenum in North America, and could be a potential source of critical minerals such as rhenium and tellurium.
Rio Tinto is a member of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Institute and is jointly investigating with its experts on ways to extract additional critical minerals from the existing refining and smelting process.
Rhenium, one of the rarest elements, has the third-highest melting point and its nickel-based alloys are used in exhaust nozzles of jet engines. Its alloys are also used in oven heating elements and X-ray machines.
Mills said the state is engaged in research related to the production of tungsten — another critical mineral — which is the only other metal element with a higher melting point than rhenium.