As we continue our look Through the Gateway, comes a stern reminder by way of Canada that the geopolitics of resource supply represents a complex issue warranting comprehensive policy approaches.
And it literally concerns a metal that touches us — more precisely, we touch it — every day, too many times to count.
A decision to close metallurgical operations at the Kidd Creek Copper-Zinc-Silver deposit in Ontario, Canada, will effectively remove more than ten metric tons of Indium – a co-product metal the Gateway Metals to which include Zinc and Tin – from the global market. As MetalBulletin points out, the mine is not closing per se, but concentrates from the mine will be taken to a different smelter without Indium processing capabilities, meaning the Indium is effectively going to be lost.
While ten metric tons does not sound like much, this is significant, as we’re talking about Indium here, which is one of the rarer tech co-product metals. USGS pegs total global refinery production of Indium at 755 metric tons in 2015. With the United States not producing any Indium – making us 100% import-dependent — and Canada – which is our biggest supplier of Indium – accounting for 66 metric tons, removing more than ten metric tons from the global market is a big deal just in terms of numbers.
But why is this relevant? Aside from being a key component for the construction of CIGS (i.e. Copper, Indium, Gallium, Selenide solar panels) Indium happens to be the “fairy dust” that turns a regular computer, tablet or smart phone screen into a touch screen. The majority of newer smart phone and tablet makers have turned to ITO (Indium Tin Oxide) to form the conductive layer, which is “used to monitor changes in electrical state as you touch and swipe the screen.” AZoMaterials has a great write-up and quick video explaining the technology.
Rumors that new IGZO (Indium, Gallium, Zinc Oxide) semiconductor technology has found its way into the displays of the just-released iPhone 7 (we discussed this a few weeks ago here have not yet been confirmed, but the bottom line is that Indium is one of the tech metals that is growing in importance.
Last year, the United States consumed 124 metric tons of refined Indium. With Canada removing a significant percentage of Indium from the global market, the United States may now be forced to turn to China to meet demand even more than before – a daunting proposition.
Meanwhile, there is a serious disconnect with regards to resource policy. Most policy makers – and candidates for political office for that matter – fail to connect the dots – everyone is in favor of strengthening our manufacturing base, but they fail to acknowledge that we need “stuff” to make “stuff.” Maybe if their touchscreens stopped working all of a sudden they’d get the memo, and would focus on devising a comprehensive mineral resource strategy. Word of a potential Indium shortage may cause our eyes to glaze over — but if we lose touch with our touch-screens, maybe then we’ll get a feel for the role co-product metals play in our 21st Century lives.