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Minerals Mined Overseas Critical to Renewable Energy, Daily Life

Critical minerals touch many aspects of everyday life, and as attention turns toward combating climate change these minerals will play an even more important role in renewable energy sources.

Dr. Nedal Nassar, the chief of the Materials Flow Analysis Section at the National Minerals Information Center, U.S. Geological Survey, explained the role critical minerals play in many renewable energy and advanced technology products and how the increasing need for them is driving national security concerns during the Center for Energy Policy and Management’s most recent webinar.

“Mineral commodities are used throughout modern society,” Nassar said, in products that range from cellphones, to flat-screen TVs, batteries, electronics, and steel and aluminum alloys. Certain minerals are critical to building components in photovoltaic panels, wind turbines and batteries for electric vehicles and energy storage.

“Global production (of critical metals) has increased markedly over the past few decades, especially for certain minor metals,” he added, as the market for consumer electronics and renewable energy increases. Solar energy is expected to make up the largest share of global energy generation by 2041, the trend will accelerate.

Much of the supply of these critical minerals comes from other countries, including China, Russia, Australia and Canada. Minerals are mined, and certain minor minerals are actually byproducts of those.

That has raised national security concerns because China’s share of global production has rapidly increased and the U.S. is highly reliant China and other countries for a growing supply of metals. Chinese companies have also made investments in mineral operations in other countries, compounding the problem.

While some mining of certain critical metals occurs in the U.S., there is still a lack of downstream processing, meaning that the minerals then have to be shipped overseas to smelting and processing operations, which “doesn’t really solve the national security issue.”

Recycling is being tried but Nassar explained that “there are a lot of complexities that make it difficult.” There is a lack of collection of devices containing metals, and many are so complex and tiny that it is almost impossible to recycle them. In addition, increasing demand far outstrips recycling’s potential.

As a result, substitution of more available critical metals for others is an important strategy being researched to ensure a secure and reliable supply. Scenarios to reduce demand while increasing domestic supply are also being developed.

The U.S. has subcommittee on Critical and Strategic Minerals Supply Chains that has developed a methodology for determining supply risk, and has outlined a federal strategy to address the increasing need. Some of the options include manufacturing improvements, substitution, trade ties with reliable partner countries, and increased domestic secondary supply.

By assessing the impact of each of those options, the U.S. can be effective at reducing its import reliance and supply risk, Nassar said.

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