Last of a two-part series

Domestic mining will address the Critical Minerals issue and will ultimately lead to mineral independence. It is a goal that must also be pursued for national economy and security purposes.

Thirty-five minerals have been named to a “final list of critical minerals”. It is concerning that 14 of these critical minerals are 100% imported with China being their predominant supplier. The attached table illustrates how dependent we have become on China.

According to the table, supply disruptions would clearly have a significant impact on various aspects of the national economy and security. Let’s examine barite as an example. It is predominantly used as a drilling mud for oil production. We domestically mine 25% of our needs and therefore import 75%, and 52% of the 75% comes from China. If the Chinese supply were suddenly stopped, 52% of domestic oil production using barite drilling muds would shut down. This shut down would last until another source of barite is found or an alternative drilling mud is procured, assuming the equipment can be modified to handle it. In the meantime, gasoline prices would increase. Of course, the best solution is to find a domestic source of barite.

So, to repeat: The U.S. needs to ramp up domestic minerals production now!

As another example, the table also shows 78% of Rare Earth Elements (REEs) are imported from China. However, because they have the processing and manufacturing capabilities to separate out the individual REEs, China also obtains another 18% from other countries (including the U.S.!). In this regard, they control approximately 96% of all REEs. REEs are primarily used to make magnets for use in various goods such as computer hard disk drives, wind turbine generators, cell phones, speakers, head phones, etc. If a complete supply disruption occurred, magnet production would essentially shut down along with the markets that uses them. Let us not forget that REEs are also used in other goods such as fuel cells, batteries, electronics, glasses, and phosphors for TVs and fluorescent lights as well as in defense items such as night-vision goggles, armored vehicles, laser-guidance systems for weapons, jet fighter engines, anti-missile defense systems, and smart bombs. In this case, the disruption would last until the U.S. was able to resume imports from China. In the meantime, the national economy would suffer and our national defense would be put in jeopardy.

Foreign dependence on critical minerals can lead to price and demand volatility as well as supply disruptions that cause shortfalls. However, these issues can be resolved with domestic mining. Domestic mining must also be coupled with domestic processing and manufacturing where those capabilities do not exist. All of this will make the U.S. less vulnerable to potential economic and political actions from foreign governments like China.

Thus, to emphasize: The U.S. needs to ramp up domestic minerals production now!!

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The views and conclusions contained in this opinion piece are those of the author and should not be interpreted as representing the official policy of Montana Tech, either expressed or implied.

Courtney Young is the Lewis S. Prater Distinguished Professor of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering at Montana Tech.


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