Mining Weekly zeroes in on strategic metals issues under discussion at the annual Mining Indaba conference in South Africa (indaba, in zulu, is the word for a meeting on matters of substance). Lara Smith of Core Consultants identifies cobalt, tantalum and the rare earths as high-risk metals, given a combination of uncertain supply and rising demand.
Electronics applications – particularly advances in miniaturization – are driving demand for tantalum in mobile phones and other wireless devices, while cobalt’s usage in electric car batteries and also in the burgeoning e-bicycle market has pushed past the metal’s long-standing applications as a super-alloy and catalyst.
The Rare Earths – with applications ranging from solar panels and CFL lighting to wind turbines and weapons systems – are a well-known family of metals to American Resource followers.
As for U.S. access to each of these metals, our import dependency ranges from 75% for colbalt – primary importers: China, Norway, Russia and Canada – to 100% for tantalum and more than 99% for Rare Earths, with China again our leading provider. DR Congo, subject to conflict metals legislation in the U.S., exports significant amounts of tantalum-bearing coltan to China, where it is refined and enters the global supply chain.
The U.S. National Defense Stockpile has suspended planned sales of its tantalum and cobalt stocks. For cobalt, USGS estimates the U.S. is home to 1 million of 15 million tons worldwide. No U.S. company has mined cobalt since 1971. As for tantalum, USGS reports identify U.S. resources of about 1500 tons – twice the current global production – but notes that these resources are uneconomical. With tantalum tripling in price in the past 3 years and Indaba’s experts predicting shortages ahead, perhaps the old assumptions about tantalum mining will get a fresh look.