Critical Minerals and Emerging Technologies: The Federal Government Can Help Ensure That the Nation Has Sufficient and Reliable Supplies of Critical Materials Used Increasingly in Industry and Defense

Article excerpt

The periodic table is under siege. Or at least that is what one might imagine after hearing some of the cries of alarm that have begun echoing across the United States. We hear that the latest cell phones, electric vehicles, or critical weapons systems might no longer be feasible because some element that most people have never heard of is in short supply or being hoarded by another country.

Among the alarms issued in just the first few months of 2010, The New Yorker published an essay on lithium supplies (which may be essential for batteries in electric vehicles) and the potentially critical role of Bolivia as a supplier in the future. The Atlantic published an article on China's activities in Africa to secure--even "lock up"--primary commodities needed by its growing manufacturing sector. Science published a special section in one issue describing new materials for electronics, and the report included commentary on possible scarcities of essential elements that could constrain expansion. Even the U.S. Government Accountability Office weighed in, publishing the findings of its investigation on the availability of rare-earth elements for essential military applications and vulnerability to shortages.

One factor giving rise to concerns is that modern mineral-based materials are becoming increasingly complex. Intel estimates that computer chips contained 11 mineral-derived elements in the 1980s, 15 elements in the 1990s, and potentially up to 60 elements in the coming years. General Electric estimates that it uses 70 of the first 83 elements in the periodic table in its products. New technologies and engineered materials create the prospect of rapid increases in demand for some minerals previously used in relatively small quantities. On the list are such elements as lithium in automotive batteries for electric vehicles; rare-earth elements in compact-fluorescent light bulbs and in permanent magnets for wind turbines; and cadmium, indium, and tellurium in photovoltaic solar cells.

On the supply side, meanwhile, some mineral markets are becoming increasingly fragile. The United States has become significantly more reliant on foreign sources for many minerals. Some exporting nations, most notably China, have imposed export restrictions on primary raw materials to encourage domestic processing and fabrication of mineral-based materials into final products. Some mineral markets have production that is concentrated in a small number of companies or countries--such as platinum-group metals in South Africa--creating vulnerability to geopolitical risks and to the possibility of opportunistic pricing. More broadly, supply chains are more fragmented because mining, processing, and manufacturing increasingly take place in different countries. Together, these factors create the specter of supply risks for essential mineral-based elements.

The United States can manage and reduce these risks, however, if government policymakers and industrial producers learn from the experience of previous supply scares, focus carefully on the most important concerns, and plan strategically.

Concerns familiar and new

The availability and adequacy of mineral resources have been perennial, if intermittent, national and world concerns. In the decade after World War II, concern focused on securing the resources necessary to replace reserves depleted during the war and to facilitate postwar reconstruction. In the 1970s, concern shifted to the security of foreign sources of oil and minerals (such as bauxite and cobalt) and to the long-term adequacy of supply of energy and mineral resources generally following two decades of significant economic growth worldwide. Many observers worried: Was the world running out of nonrenewable natural resources essential for modern society? In the 1980s and 1990s, concern shifted away from security of supply and long-term adequacy toward environmental and social issues. …