Securing the Supply Chain of Strategic Minerals

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Securing the Supply Chain of Strategic Minerals

A major new study from the U.S. Geological Survey addressed the vulnerability of America’s Supply Chain of Strategic Minerals.  It focused primarily on 23 “mineral commodity groups” classified as critical based on the assessed likelihood of supply interruption and the possible cost of such an interruption.  Begun in 2013, the research found that 20 out of the 23 critical minerals the nation relies on are primarily sourced from China.  These materials are used in a broad range of existing and emerging technologies, as well as national security applications.

The elements derived from these critical mineral commodity groups include antimony, barium, beryllium, cobalt, fluorine, gallium, germanium, hafnium, indium, lithium, manganese, niobium, rhenium, selenium, tantalum, tellurium, tin, titanium, vanadium, zirconium and carbon in the form of graphite, as well as the platinum-group elements and the rare-earth elements.  The total amounts to 61 out of the 92 naturally occurring elements. 

Each of these commodities was identified as critical or strategic in one or more recent U.S. government studies.  That is a clear reflection of the rapid advance of material technology and mankind’s soaring demand for raw materials.  As recently as 1973, only 12 elements were classified as critical or strategic.

For some of the minerals, current production is limited to only one or a few countries.  And for many, the United States currently has neither domestic mine production nor any significant identified resources.  And consequently, it is largely dependent on imports to meet its needs. 

The potential vulnerability is not purely hypothetical.  The sometimes-tenuous nature of these mineral supply chains received worldwide attention in 2010 when China suddenly and drastically cut its export quota for the rare-earth elements.  The move highlighted the fact that China had a virtual monopoly on the short-term supply of rare-earth elements — elements that are essential to many high-tech applications.  At that time, the rest of the world was left scrambling to find alternative and secure supplies. 

China is also the world’s primary producer of a number of other mineral commodities that are essential in high-tech applications and national security. These include antimony, bismuth, fluorine, germanium, graphite, and indium.  Other important mineral commodities which are largely controlled by one country, include cobalt by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, niobium by Brazil, and platinum by South Africa...

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