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American Resources Policy Network
Promoting the development of American mineral resources.
  • Boron: Of “Slime,” Materials Science and Trade Balances

    If you have preschoolers or grade schoolers at home on summer break, chances are you’ve already had to make “slime.”   Researching the various recipes to make the latest kids’ craze, you will likely also have come across one often-used ingredient: Borax.

    While Borax has long been a traditional staple in American laundry rooms, borates are increasingly becoming key components of cutting-edge gadgetry and technology.

    Most recently, scientists at UCLA have released their findings regarding a new technique using Silicon and Boron to break carbon-hydrogen bonds and make carbon-carbon bonds.  In doing so, they have overcome one of the big challenges of molecular science – the strong bond between carbon and hydrogen bonds – without using rare and expensive elements like Iridium.

    Of particular interest to the energy industry, which has been seeking ways to turn simple hydrocarbon molecules into new fuels, this new method “will enable scientists to incorporate methane into bigger molecules,” says UCLA assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry Hosea Nelson.

    The UCLA research team touts other possible applications: 

    “Another potential application would be converting methane, one of the primary components of natural gas, into something that’s denser and easier to contain after it has been drilled from Earth. The current process is complicated because methane, a light gas, tends to escape into the atmosphere.

    Furthermore, because the technique used by the researchers can be performed at “temperatures and gas pressures that are easily attainable in a laboratory” and allows for the assembly of complex molecules in fewer reaction steps that previously possible, chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturers could save both time and money.  Ultimately, the molecules in existing pharmaceuticals might be altered to be made more effective, safer, or less addictive.

    This development will in all likelihood not impact the United States’ supply scenario for Borates – after all Borates are one of the few minerals of which we are a net exporter.   It does, however, once more underscore how materials science is a real game-changer in how we should look at mineral resources and underlying policies.

    In the case of Boron, the United States boasts a strong production base ensuring supply not only for our domestic needs but also for our trading partners’ needs. A single mine in California supplies roughly 30 percent of the world’s demand for refined Borates.

    As we previously pointed out:

    “With mining exports making considerable positive contributions to America’s trade balance, policy makers and other stakeholders should embrace policies that encourage the development of the mineral resources we are blessed to have beneath our own soil – not just for those where our demand exceeds supply, but for those like Boron, where U.S. production supplies the world.”

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  • 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?

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  • 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 [...]
  • 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, [...]

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