In the latest installment of his “Critical Minerals Alaska” series for North of 60 Mining News, Shane Lasley zeroes in on what USGS has dubbed the “indispensable twins” – Niobium and Tantalum. Both share “nearly indistinguishable physical and chemical properties” and are “critical to the defense, energy and high-tech sectors.” Meanwhile, neither Niobium nor Tantalum are mined in the United States, so their inclusion on the recently-released Department of the Interior list of 35 minerals deemed critical to U.S. national security and the economy should come as no surprise.
Standouts among Niobium’s properties are its “toughness, resistance to corrosion and high melting point [which] makes it an important alloy to steel that will be used in situations where durability is vital.” Its extreme heat resistance when alloyed with steel makes it a key ingredient for superalloys in jet engines, rockets, gas turbines, and turbochargers.
Tantalum shares many of Niobium’s characteristics, but, as Lasley writes, it’s “its exceptional capacity to store and release energy” that sets this twin apart, and has resulted in the fact that “50 percent of the tantalum consumed in the United States was used in capacitors and high-power resistors for the electronics sector.”
Lasley lists several more of the twins’ properties, but for our purposes, suffice it to say they’re indeed quite “indispensable.”
In spite of the fact that the United States is home to both Niobium and Tantalum deposits, neither of them has been produced domestically since the 1950s. As a result, the U.S. 100% is import dependent for both, with Brazil (pegged at 72 percent for Niobium, 40 percent for Tantalum minerals) and China (pegged at 23 percent for Tantalum metals) listed as lead suppliers by USGS — leaving domestic industries vulnerable to supply disruptions.
Thankfully, there is domestic resource potential that – if properly harnessed, could alleviate these vulnerabilities. Lasley points to several deposits in Alaska that show great potential for domestic development of both Niobium and Tantalum, as well as a number of other metals and minerals deemed critical from an economic and national security perspective.
Whether or not these specific deposits are economically viable remains to be seen, but the fact of the matter is that we need a framework conducive to unleashing this kind of domestic resource potential.
As Mark J. Perry, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a professor of economics and finance at the University of Michigan’s Flint campus recently wrote for the Washington Examiner:
“More than ever before, our political and business leaders need to make it clear that foreign dependence is neither the right nor the necessary way, and exposes the U.S. economy to great and unnecessary risks. An ideal minerals policy would limit regulatory intrusion, promote economic growth, and enable U.S. companies to compete in international markets. Environmentalists will likely resist any regulatory rollbacks. But so profound is the case for strengthening U.S. mining of minerals and metals that our highest priority should be the security and economic dividends from a pro-competitiveness agenda.”