The United States depends on a variety of raw, non-fuel materials dubbed “critical minerals” to manufacture products considered essential to national security. These products can range from rare earth minerals in electric motors and generators, to the carbon fiber used for airplanes. Increasing demand, coupled with limited domestic supply and increasing reliance on foreign companies to import these critical minerals, poses significant risks to the U.S. supply chain.
The Department of the Interior published on May 18, 2018, a list of 35 mineral commodities considered critical to the economic and national security of the United States. These minerals have been designated as critical to the US’s national interest in part because of their potential military and industrial applications. The Essential Chemical Industry at the University of York, UK, reported that nearly half of the world’s titanium goes to aerospace projects and that it is often used as an alloy with metals, such as aluminium, molybdenum and iron.
The list includes aluminum—used in almost all sectors of the economy; the platinum group metals—used for catalytic agents; rare-earth elements—used in batteries and electronics; tin—used as protective coatings and alloys for steel; and titanium—overwhelmingly used as a white pigment or as a metal alloy. A full list of the 35 mineral commodities follows.
Scandium can be worked at high temperatures, making its role in jet engines ‘a very real future possibility’, according to NioCorp. Currently it is used to reinforce and strengthen aluminium. Niobium serves a similar purpose, making steel stronger, lighter and more corrosion-resistant, producing high-strength, low-alloy steels. Unlike the former metals, niobium is listed as both a critical and a strategic mineral, signifying its importance to the US, as well as its difficulty to produce.
The potential military uses of these minerals have highlighted their importance to the Trump administration. In May this year, when Jeffery A. Green, the president of a bipartisan government-relations firm in Washington DC and a former US Air Force commander, wrote in Defense News that, “without access to such minerals, our precision-guided missiles will not hit their targets, our aircraft and submarines will sit unfinished in depots, and our war-fighters will be left without the equipment they need to complete their missions.”
The scarcity of these minerals means that the vast majority are imported: Brazil produces 92% of the world’s niobium, while the USGS named China as the largest importer of scandium to the US in 2015. China also produced 47% of the world’s titanium in 2016.
This list of critical minerals, while “final,” is not intended as a permanent designation of criticality, but will be a dynamic list updated periodically to represent current data on supply, demand, and concentration of production, as well as current policy priorities.
Itronics Starts R&D to Recover Tin, a U.S. Critical Mineral, and Copper From Silver Bullion
Itronics Inc, announced in Jan 2019 that it has started research and development to recover tin and copper from the silver bullion being produced by its “Breakthrough Technology” Printed Circuit Board Refining Pilot Plant. Tin was on the list of 35 minerals deemed critical to the U.S. National Security and the Economy published by the U.S. Department of Interior.
Itronics President, Dr. John Whitney stated, “Our recovery of all of the tin contained on the circuit boards positions the Company to be a world leader in tin recovery from discarded printed circuit boards, a technology advancement of global importance. It also positions Itronics to be the first domestic printed circuit board refiner to recover tin and antimony, making Itronics an emerging domestic “critical minerals” producer.
Itronics had previously announced that its technology recovers all the copper, tin, silver, gold, and palladium (palladium is a Platinum Group Metal, PGM) carried on the discarded circuit boards being refined. The technology also recovers all the antimony, which is a fire-retardant mineral that is used to make the circuit boards fireproof. These metals are contained in the Company’s silver bullion which is sold to a finish refiner for separation and sale.
Itronics has performed laboratory testing which indicates that the copper and tin may be separated from the other metals contained in the bullion. The Company will pursue development of this new metal separation technology. The long-term plan is to become a producer of high purity metals, including the strategic metals tin and antimony, using the Company’s hydrometallurgy and pyrometallurgy technologies. Itronics would benefit if the U.S. decides to provide incentives to increase domestic production of “critical minerals,” including tin, antimony, and palladium.
According to the U.S. Department of Interior, there is no mine production of tin in the United States. All the new tin that is required by the U.S. economy is imported. The most important foreign countries in order of importance that supply tin to the United States are Indonesia, Peru, Malaysia, Bolivia, and Brazil.
The list of critical minerals was published in response to a White House Executive Order issued on December 20, 2017 for the purpose of reducing the United States dependency on imports of critical minerals. Under the Executive Order, a “critical mineral” is defined as “a non-fuel mineral or mineral material that is essential to the economic and national security of the United States, that has a supply chain vulnerable to disruption, and that serves an essential function in the manufacturing of a product, the absence of which would have significant consequences for the economy or national security.”
Itronics is now operating its breakthrough printed circuit board refining technology, which refines circuit boards extracted from e-waste, on a pilot scale at its manufacturing plant in Reno, Nevada. The circuit boards are converted into energy which is used in the refining process, and silver bullion and silver-bearing glass which are sold, thereby eliminating the waste from the environment.
Itronics has pioneered the development of “Zero Waste” material recovery technology that converts liquid photochemical waste into silver bullion and a “non-nutrient metal free” liquid ingredient used to manufacture the line of high quality GOLD’n GRO liquid fertilizers. Dr. Whitney said: “Itronics is now pioneering and has achieved operational proof of concept for its second ‘Zero Waste’ material recovery technology, the breakthrough printed circuit board refining technology which is now being operated at a pilot scale.”
The full list of critical minerals includes the following:
- Aluminum (bauxite), used in almost all sectors of the economy
- Antimony, used in batteries and flame retardants
- Arsenic, used in lumber preservatives, pesticides, and semi-conductors
- Barite, used in cement and petroleum industries
- Beryllium, used as an alloying agent in aerospace and defense industries
- Bismuth, used in medical and atomic research
- Cesium, used in research and development
- Chromium, used primarily in stainless steel and other alloys
- Cobalt, used in rechargeable batteries and superalloys
- Fluorspar, used in the manufacture of aluminum, gasoline, and uranium fuel
- Gallium, used for integrated circuits and optical devices like LEDs
- Germanium, used for fiber optics and night vision applications
- Graphite (natural), used for lubricants, batteries, and fuel cells
- Hafnium, used for nuclear control rods, alloys, and high-temperature ceramics
- Helium, used for MRIs, lifting agent and research
- Indium, mostly used in LCD screens
- Lithium, used primarily for batteries
- Magnesium, used in furnace linings for manufacturing steel and ceramics
- Manganese, used in steelmaking
- Niobium, used mostly in steel alloys
- Platinum group metals, used for catalytic agents
- Potash, primarily used as a fertilizer
- Rare earth elements group, pri-marily used in batteries and electronics
- Rhenium, used for lead-free gasoline and superalloys
- Rubidium, used for research and development in electronics
- Scandium, used for alloys and fuel cells
- Strontium, used for pyrotechnics and ceramic magnets
- Tantalum, used in electronic components, mostly capacitors
- Tellurium, used in steelmaking and solar cells
- Tin, used as protective coatings and alloys for steel
- Titanium, overwhelmingly used as a white pigment or metal alloys
- Tungsten, primarily used to make wear-resistant metals
- Uranium, mostly used for nuclear fuel
- Vanadium, primarily used for titanium alloys
- Zirconium, used in the high-temperature ceramics industries
Under the Executive Order, these commodities qualify as “critical minerals” because each has been identified as a non-fuel mineral or mineral material that is essential to the economic and national security of the U.S., that has a supply chain vulnerable to disruption, and that serves an essential function in the manufacturing of a product, the absence of which would have significant consequences for the economy or national security.
DARPA Critical Minerals Competition Uses AI to Accelerate Analytics
DARPA has partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to explore the potential for machine learning and artificial intelligence tools and techniques to accelerate critical mineral assessments. The goal is to significantly speed up the assessment of the nation’s critical mineral resources by automating key steps in the process.
The Energy Act of 2020 called for the USGS to assess all critical mineral resources in the U.S. In addition, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law called on the USGS to assess potential critical mineral resources in mine wastes. These assessments can quantify potential mineral sources from existing domestic mines – whether historical or active – and help identify opportunities for economically and environmentally viable resource development.
Here’s the challenge: The list of critical minerals currently includes 50 minerals and current assessments are labor intensive. Using traditional techniques, assessing all 50 critical minerals would proceed too slowly to address present-day supply chain needs.
“The USGS’s critical mineral resource assessments are at the heart of our domestic supply and production of critical minerals,” said Dr. Anne Fischer, deputy director of DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office. “We want to have a measurable, immediate impact on the USGS’s ability to reach some of its objectives, especially in ways that are critical to national security.”
As part of the exploratory study, DARPA, in collaboration with the USGS, MITRE and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, launched the AI for Critical Mineral Assessment Competition. This competition solicits innovative solutions for automatically extracting and georeferencing features from scanned or raster maps.
The competition will include the following two, independent challenges:
Map Georeferencing Challenge: Automated map georeferencing is a difficult task as most USGS maps are not digitized, and may be in a multitude of historical coordinate projection systems. Furthermore, the quality of features on scanned maps, critical for the identification of control points for alignment, can vary greatly. Participants will receive a dataset of 1,000 or more maps of various types for training and validation. The goal of this challenge is to accurately geolocate a map of unknown location and coordinate system by fitting coordinate points that can be referenced to known locations in one or more base maps.
Map Feature Extraction Challenge: Automated map feature extraction is a difficult task because map features (polygons, points, lines, text) often overlap and are sometimes discontinuous. Not only do the features come in all shapes and sizes, but the same feature type can be depicted in different maps using different symbols or patterns. This makes it challenging to create a universal identifier for even a single feature such as a mine location or mineral resource tracts. Participants will be provided a training set consisting of maps with each legend item labeled and characterized (as point, line, or polygon) and a binary pixel map reflecting the feature’s coverage in the map. The goal of the challenge is to identify all features in a map that appear in the map’s legend.
(DARPA) officials recently announced the winners of its AI for Critical Mineral Assessment Competition, noting the effort increases and better secures critical mineral supply.
In conjunction with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the competition’s goal was to crowdsource ideas to reduce the time required to complete parts of assessments using AI and machine learning to automate key processes.
Canada-based company Uncharted garnered the top honors for their solution, while American company Jataware received second place, and Team Ptolemy, which included team members from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Arizona, and Pennsylvania State University, received third place.
“Critical minerals are essential to the national security supply chain, and as such, the agency is approaching the need from multiple angles,” DARPA Director Stefanie Tompkins said. “The USGS collaboration puts an emphasis on identifying existing domestic resources. Other DARPA programs are evaluating the feasibility of recovering rare earth elements from e-waste and bioengineering methods to purify rare earth elements.”
USGS Director David Applegate said the competition has served as a valuable opportunity for the USGS to collaborate with leading minds in AI to improve the approach to critical mineral assessments.
“It has already led to incredible time savings in how we prepare data in a machine-readable format,” Applegate said. “Furthermore, these machine-learning models have implications beyond mineral resources into other fields that use map data, including geologic mapping, ecological mapping of species diversity, and many other application areas.”
“DARPA is known for fostering innovation by creating problem-focused research communities, and we’re excited to put the results of this competition to immediate use,” said Sarah Ryker, associate director for energy and mineral resources at the USGS. “The United States is under-mapped, and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides a historic opportunity to catch up – if we can precisely target our investments in new mapping. We hope that new capabilities emerging from these challenges will enable us to do exactly that.”
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