American Resources Policy Network
Promoting the development of American mineral resources.
  • Through The Gateway – We Have the Reserves, So Why Aren’t We A Copper Net Exporter?

    Over the past few weeks, we’ve taken you on a journey “Through the Gateway.” We have looked at some of the key properties and supply and demand picture for Copper, as well as Copper’s co-products TelluriumSeleniumRhenium and Molybdenum.*

    It has become abundantly clear that Copper is a critical mineral, not just as a stand-alone traditional mainstay metal, but also as a gateway to the (mostly) rare tech metals it unlocks.

    In spite of the fact that, as we’ve pointed out, the United States is home to vast mineral riches, including Copper, we are still relying on foreign imports to meet our domestic industries’ Copper demand.  With our own reserves and at mining projects ready to come online, the U.S. would not only be able to become self-sufficient with regards to meeting Copper needs, but could even position itself to be a Copper net exporter.  A similar scenario is feasible for a number of other critical metals and minerals, where we could, at a minimum, significantly reduce foreign import dependencies by harnessing our domestic mineral potential.

    Standing in the way of such a development, however, is a combination of decreased exploration spending and an increase in the time it takes for domestic mineral resource extraction projects to come online courtesy of a rigid and outdated permitting process.

    At present, it takes roughly seven to ten years to get a mining project permitted in the United States.   Without compromising environmental standards, that very process is wrapped up in one to two years in Australia, and three to five years in Canada.

    With that said, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel.

    In a rare show of bipartisanship, the United States Senate has passed legislation that may represent a first step at addressing the United States’ over-reliance on foreign mineral resources. For the first time in years, a set of provisions aimed at improving our near worst-in-the-world permitting process included in Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-AK) energy bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), may actually stand a chance of making it to the President’s desk.  However, only weeks before the summer recess, the path towards reconciling Senate and House versions of the legislation has yet to be cleared.

    At the executive branch level, efforts are also underway.

    Several initiatives, such as the Defense Logistic Agency’s work to overhaul the defense stockpile to appropriately address today’s critical mineral needs, the White House’s Materials Genome Initiative, and the Critical Materials Institute operating under the auspices of the Department of Energy come to mind.

    However, much more must be done.

    As ARPN’s Dan McGroarty told Congress earlier this year:

    I don’t think there’s another nation in the world that can match American ingenuity. We can pioneer the ideas behind wind and solar and so much else – but where will the materials that make these new energy sources real – where will they come from?

    How we answer that question will determine to a large extent whether the U.S. can regain its manufacturing might… Whether America will lead the alternative energy revolution… And whether the U.S. will have the metals and minerals we need to provide the modern military technology we depend on.”

    Having concluded our feature month for Copper and its co-products, we will now move on to discussing our next gateway metal after the 4th of July break. Stay tuned.

    * While the Copper refinement process on occasion also yields access to some Rare Earth Elements (REEs), these quantities are very limited. As ARPN readers will find plenty of REE coverage on our blog, REEs will not receive separate treatment as part of this series.
  • Through the Gateway: Gateway Metals and the Metals they Unlock Underpin Modern Technology

    Are you reading this post on a smart phone, a laptop or tablet?  Will you scroll down using your finger to swipe the screen?  Safe to say you don’t give much thought to how these functions work — even though they’re often less than a decade old.  That’s the wonder of technology — or rather, the reason that, given the pace of technological change, we typically don’t wonder much about the inner-workings of how our gadgets do what they do.

    But as ARPN followers know, it’s not magic.  Our advances grow out of the revolution in materials science that is powering the technology age.

    In an article in The New Scientist, James Mitchell Crow observed:

    We rarely stop to think of the advances in materials that underlie our material advances. Yet almost all our personal gadgets and technological innovations have something in common: they rely on some extremely unfamiliar materials from the nether reaches of the periodic table. Even if you have never heard of the likes of hafnium, erbium or tantalum, chances are there is some not too far from where you are sitting.”

    The article may be a few years old, but Crow’s premise is as relevant today as it was then:

    From indium touchscreens to hafnium-equipped moonships, the nether regions of the periodic table underpin modern technology – but supplies are getting scarce.”

    Take Tellurium, for example. One of the least common elements on Earth, according to the USGS, it is essential to photovoltaic solar cells. The challenge, however, is that despite its importance, Tellurium is not mined in its own right – it is largely a by- or (as we will explain later), more appropriately a co-product of refining Copper and, to a lesser extent, Lead and Gold.

    A similar scenario unfolds for many other tech metals critical to innovation today.

    As we have argued in our 2012 report “Through the Gateway: Gateway Metals and the Foundations of American Technology,” many of them are “unlocked” by five “gateway metals” – Aluminum, Copper, Nickel, Tin and Zinc.

    Copper ore refining yields access to Molybdenum, Rhenium, Selenium, Tellurium, along with small amounts of REEs. Zinc ore is a gateway to Indium, Germanium and Cadmium. Aluminum processing unlocks Gallium and Vanadium. Tin also provides access to Indium and Vanadium while Nickel is a gateway to Cobalt, Palladium, Rhodium and Scandium.

    When cross-referenced with the 2012 ARPN Risk Pyramid — which graphically weighted and segmented the 46 minerals and metals most cited in a series of reports on the national security applications of strategic materials — and we surveyed and analyzed our degrees of mineral resource dependence, we get the following picture:

    The five gateway metals we focused on – Aluminum, Copper, Nickel, Tin and Zinc—may only represent only 10% of the Risk Pyramid, but, when counting all Rare Earths individually, they unlock 25 of the remaining 41 metals, accounting, all told, for 60% of the whole Risk Pyramid.

    In light of these staggering numbers and the increasing importance of said tech metals to our daily lives and future innovation, we will be taking a closer look at the individual gateway metals and their co-product metals in the coming months –  so, once again, join us, as we take another in-depth look “Through the Gateway.”