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American Resources Policy Network
Promoting the development of American mineral resources.
  • Through the Gateway: Nickel – “The Metal that Brought You Cheap Flights”

    “It made the age of cheap foreign holidays possible, and for years it was what made margarine spreadable. Nickel may not be the flashiest metal but modern life would be very different without it.” 

    We couldn’t have introduced our next Gateway Metal any better than the BBC did in a feature story on Nickel and its uses last year. Nickel’s alloying properties have indeed transformed our lives – and without them, our best bet for long-distance travel might still be by train or ship.   As the BBC outlines, the first jet engines made of steel in the 1930s and 1940s did not have sufficient heat and corrosion resistance.  With Tungsten too heavy and Copper melting at too low a temperature, Nickel’s (with Chromium mixed in) strength, heat and corrosion resistance, low price point and light weight turned out to be the “Goldilocks recipe.”  And, as the BBC writes:

    Today, the descendants of these early superalloys still provide most of the back end of turbines – both those used on jet planes, and those used in power generation.”

    Other uses, again drawing from Nickel’s alloying capabilities, add to Nickel’s importance:  Monel – a Nickel-Copper alloy, is stronger than steel, malleable and corrosion resistant, and comes at a significantly lower price point than other alloys, making it a material of choice “everywhere where corrosion is a concern – from chemists’ spatulas to the protective coating on bicycle sprockets.”

    Invar – a Nickel-Iron alloy is used in precision instruments and clocks because it has the lowest thermal expansion of metals and alloys. Nitinol, a Nickel-Titanium alloy, is considered a “shape memory alloy” – a material that “remembers” their original shape.  The BBC story has a fascinating clip demonstrating Nitinol’s memory, the composition of which can be tuned. This lends itself to applications in medicine, for example, where a rolled up Nitinol stent can be inserted into a blood vessel, and allow blood to flow through it once the body’s temperature prompts the stent to open itself out. Nitinol is also used in military, robotics and safety applications.

    Suffice it to say that Nickel is a material that is here to stay. When factoring in Nickel’s Gateway Metal status, yielding access to materials like Cobalt, Palladium, Rhodium and Scandium (which we’ve discussed a fair amount because of its application in 3D printing technology), its importance only increases.

    Meanwhile, USGS has revised its Nickel supply assessment in recent years. While previous year reports showed no domestic reserves for Nickel, reserves today are pegged at 160,000 metric tons – and one active new Nickel mine in Michigan produced 26,500 metric tons of concentrates for export to Canadian and overseas smelters.   Our net import reliance for Nickel is 37 percent, and new projects in varying stages of development in Minnesota may further reduce our dependence on foreign supplies of Nickel.

    This is a promising development, however to ensure a steady and stable supply of mineral resources fueling 21st Century technologies for our domestic industries, policy makers would be well advised to look at Nickel – and all other Gateway Metals and their Co-Products more comprehensively.

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  • Graphite: At the Core of Your Pencil, 21st Century Technology, and Geopolitical Resource Warfare

    It may be its most well-known use, but Graphite today is at the core of more than just your pencil – it is at the core of 21st Century consumer technology.  Just ask Elon Musk. The Tesla Motors CEO and futurist recently insinuated that the label “Lithium-Ion battery” may actually be a misnomer for the batteries that power our favorite gadgets and, increasingly, also electric vehicles:

    “Our cells should be called Nickel-Graphite, because primarily the cathode is nickel and the anode side is graphite with silicon oxide… [there’s] a little bit of lithium in there, but it’s like the salt on the salad.”

    The bottom line – Graphite is one of the most indispensable mineral resources.

    Graphite’s rise to stardom prompted Washington Post reporter Peter Whoriskey to write a feature story about the Graphite supply chain and the problems associated with Graphite mining.  According to Whoriskey, most of the Graphite contained in Lithium-Ion batteries used by Samsung, LG, GM, Toyota and other consumer companies can ultimately traced back to China, the world’s biggest Graphite producer. Writes Whoriskey:

    “The companies making those products promote the bright futuristic possibilities of the “clean” technology. But virtually all such batteries use graphite, and its cheap production in China, often under lax environmental controls, produces old-fashioned industrial pollution.”

    However, the fact that much of the world’s production of tech metals is concentrated in China has implications beyond the environment.  With much of China’s mining industry consolidated in state-owned industries, resource policy is increasingly becoming an instrument of geopolitical warfare.  As critical minerals expert David Abraham has pointed out elsewhere in the context of China’s ever-tightening grip on rare metals: 

     “If a goal of Beijing is to bolster its green companies by providing cheap, accessible materials to downstream manufacturing, owning a resource company provides a great way to do that. Could Beijing use its ownership stake to decide who can buy which resources and at what price? Yes.”

    From a U.S. perspective, in the case of natural Graphite, this is indeed worrisome, as the United States, according to USGS, currently is 100% import-dependent for its domestic manufacturing needs, with the last U.S. Graphite producer ceasing production in 1991.

    Once again, our deep Graphite dependency problem is largely home-grown.

    While domestic natural Graphite reserves are considered small by international comparison, there are natural Graphite deposits under development in the U.S.. New technologies to turn natural Graphite into high-grade spherical Graphite, which is used by Electric Vehicle (EV) battery technology, are also readily available.

    With stringent environmental standards in place and cleaner, new techniques that minimize the impact on the communities in which the deposit is developed at our disposal, harnessing our domestic Graphite resources would allow us significantly lessen our dependence on foreign supplies and also reduce China’s geopolitical leverage in the 21st Century resource wars.

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  • China to accelerate overseas pursuit of nonferrous metals

    As reports about China’s restrictive mineral export policies continue to dominate the resource news cycles, don’t expect Beijing to slow down its aggressive pursuit of access to critical metals and minerals around the world. According to China Daily’s European edition, senior Chinese industry officials have announced that Chinese miners will accelerate the exploration of overseas [...]
  • Rare earths and beyond: China is shaping India’s mineral policy

    In today’s globalized world, it doesn’t take a seat at the decision-making table for one nation to influence another’s domestic policies – a near-monopoly on critical mineral resources will do.  A case in point is India, which, after a seven-year hiatus, is expanding its indigenous Rare Earth Element (REE) production over growing concerns that China [...]

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