American Resources Policy Network
Promoting the development of American mineral resources.
  • Advances in Materials Science Warrant Rethink in Resource Policy

    We appreciate them for their traditional applications, but metals like Copper and Tin are far more than your mainstay materials.  We discussed their Gateway Metal status here, but it’s not just the fact that their development yields access to some of the most sought-after tech metals that makes them so indispensible – it’s advances in materials science that elevate their critical mineral status.

    One of the latest examples comes to us via Science, which earlier this month discussed the development of a new cheap chemical catalyst that is able to mimic parts of the photosynthetic process, using solar generated electricity to split CO2 into energy-rich carbon monoxide (CO) and oxygen.

    Researchers have long been studying various catalysts that enable CO2 splitting, among them most prominently a mix of Copper and oxygen called copper oxide.  In light of its shortcomings – the catalyst splitting more water than CO2, thus making a less energy-rich compound – a grad student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne last year added a layer of said catalysts on a tin oxide–based electrode.  The new catalyst generated almost pure CO.  The research team went to work making some tweaks to their electrodes – with great success, according to Science:

    “As Graetzel’s team reports this week in Nature Energy, the strategy worked, converting 90% of the CO2 molecules into CO, with hydrogen and other byproducts making up the rest. They also hooked their setup to a solar cell and showed that a record 13.4% of the energy in the captured sunlight was converted into the CO’s chemical bonds. That’s far better than plants, which store energy with about 1% efficiency, and even tops recent hybrid approaches that combine catalysts with microbes to generate fuel.” 

    To date, these efforts remain “squarely in the realm of basic research,” because these newly developed catalysts are still a far cry from generating fuel cost-efficiently.  However, at the pace materials science has been transforming the world we live in, it is not out of the question that this discovery might one day in the not-too-distant future lead to “methods for making essentially unlimited amounts of liquid fuels from sunlight, water, and CO2.”

    It is developments like these that show that old paradigms are out the window.

    Copper is no longer just a mainstay metal and conductor of electricity.  Aluminum is more than just a building material. And Tin is more than just a food container.  They are Gateway Metals yielding access to some of the so-called “minor” metals that are quickly becoming the quintessential building blocks of our 21st Century high-tech and sustainable energy future and manufacturing renaissance. And they have found and are still finding new important and versatile applications at a rapid pace, with the potential of altering both supply and demand pictures drastically.

    Meanwhile, our import dependence for many materials remains high – and needlessly so, as for many we have significant deposits beneath our own soil.

    Take Copper, for example: With estimated reserves of 33 million metric tons of Copper, the United States would be well positioned to close our Copper Gap – recently pegged at more than 600,000 tons per year. However, we are still importing 34 percent of the Copper we consume.

    Given the pace of materials science, isn’t it time that we adjust our mineral resource policy and build a framework that unleashes our nation’s vast mineral potential?

  • Urban Mining – No Panacea but Important Piece of the Resource Strategy Puzzle

    Advances in materials science continue to transform the way we use metals and minerals, and in doing so, also change the supply and demand scenarios for many materials.

    As we recently pointed out on the ARPN blog, demand for Cobalt has been soaring thanks to its applications in battery technology and the growing popularity of electronic vehicles.  Meanwhile, supply of Cobalt is fraught with several issues, not least the geographic origin of much of the Cobalt we use today – the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a Central African nation rife with conflict.

    Critics have long lamented production conditions in a number of artisanal Cobalt mining operations in the country, which involve unsafe labor conditions, poor environmental standards, triggering many tech companies relying on Cobalt for the production of their products to seek other sources.

    Which in the present climate, is easier said than done.  While there are several promising mining projects in North America and Australia, more than 90 percent of the Cobalt refined in China (which is the largest Cobalt consumer in the world) is sourced from the DRC, which holds the largest known Cobalt reserves on the planet — meaning finding alternative sources of primary Cobalt is a positive development, but no silver bullet.

    Enter Urban Mining.   While it sounds a bit like a hipster term for rummaging through yard sales in the suburbs, the term describes a process that is setting itself up to be a means by which we may be able to further “close the loop” of the circular economy,” which “thrives on sustainability and focuses mainly on refining design production and recycling to ensure that little to no waste results.”

     A recent European Innovation Partnership on Raw Materials paper defined the urban mining concept as follows:

    “As waste continues to grow, so does the amount of resources trapped within wasted products, some of them rich in minerals, metals and other valuable materials. Many resource-rich products are consumed and disposed of in urban regions, transforming cities into resource “mines” which could be sourced for secondary resources to be reintegrated back into the supply chain. With this in mind, a variety of formal and informal actors have begun to reclaim value from these urban mines. The process of reclaiming resources from products, buildings and waste is known as urban mining.” 

    A key component of Lithium-ion battery technology, Cobalt is one of the materials that end up in landfills as part of discarded end-of-life electrical and electronic devices, and as such, among others, is a prime candidate for urban mining.

    While recovering tech and precious metals from consumer electronics is fraught with challenges – drawbacks like environmental damage in the process of dissolving circuit boards during metal extraction come to mind – research to improve mining processing techniques and recovery and reclamation of materials are well underway.

     For example, earlier this year, researchers at the International Islamic University Malaysia published their findings on the development of a new way to “extract the lithium and the cobalt that make up the bulk of the metal components of [rechargeable] batteries.”

    Closer to home — in the U.S., that is — there is the current collaboration between the Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Institute (CMI) and Rio Tinto, one strand of which is exploring better methods of extracting critical metals from eWaste.

    Urban mining will by no means obviate the need for traditional mining and is as such not a panacea for supply woes.  With innovations in the field and concerted efforts to not only improve extraction technologies, but to also develop products and materials in ways that lend themselves to easier reclamation of metals, it does, however, represent a viable opportunity to alleviate pressures – and as such deserves to be factored into any comprehensive mineral resource strategy.

  • Through the Gateway: Scandium Embodies Materials Science Revolution

    As we near the conclusion of our journey “Through the Gateway,” we noticed that one metal has kept popping up in our coverage – Scandium. A co-product of Tin, we also discussed it in the context of the alloying properties of Gateway Metal Aluminum. It is also a co-product of Nickel. There is good reason it keeps popping up. For [...]
  • Through the Gateway: Rhodium – Not Just Another Platinum Group Metal

    A rare, silvery white, hard and corrosion-resistant metal, Rhodium is not only one of Palladium’s fellow members of the Platinum Group Metals (PGMs); it, too, happens to be a Nickel co-product.  And, as is the case with Palladium, one of Rhodium’s main uses is in catalytic converters to reduce automobile emissions, as well as in industrial catalysts. Alloyed with [...]
  • Through the Gateway: Aluminum Alloys – Versatility On Steroids

    Last year, researchers developed a material “that’s as strong and light as titanium, another expensive material, but at just a tenth of the cost.” They were able to achieve this feat by tweaking Aluminum’s alloying properties at the nano level. Aluminum’s properties as a stand-alone metal already make it one of the most versatile materials in engineering and [...]
  • 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, [...]