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American Resources Policy Network
Promoting the development of American mineral resources.
  • Materials Science Profiles of Progress – Researchers Turn to Bioengineered Bacteria to Recover REEs

    Followers of ARPN are well aware that we have been calling out policy makers and other stakeholders for their inaction when it comes to working towards the development of a coherent, forward-looking and comprehensive mineral resource strategy – and we frequently point to missed opportunities to work towards this goal.

    While we stand by our criticism, there have also been some positive developments in recent years, largely brought about by the ongoing revolution in materials science, and over the next few weeks, we will be highlighting some of these ”Materials Science Profiles of Progress” on our blog. Call it our attempt at positive reinforcement.  

    The most recent development we’d like to feature in this context comes via the Critical Materials Institute (CMI), a Department of Energy research hub led by Ames National Laboratory and a team of research partners which strives ”to develop solutions across the materials lifecycle as well as reduce the impact of supply chain disruptions and price fluctuations associated with these valuable resources.”

    Tied into the overall CMI effort, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have discovered a new method to recover Rare Earth Elements (REEs) using bioengineered bacteria. 

    According to the Lab’s own announcement, 

    ”[m]any recent studies have looked at the use of biomass for adsorption of REEs. However, REE adsorption by bioengineered systems has been scarcely documented, and rarely tested with complex natural feedstocks. 

    But in the new research, the LLNL team recovered rare earth elements from low-grade feedstock (raw material supplied to a machine or processing plant) using engineered bacteria.”

    Said Yongqin Jiao, one of the team’s lead researchers:

    ”Non-traditional REE resources, such as mine tailings, geothermal brines and coal byproducts, are abundant and offer a potential means to diversify the REE supply chain. However, no current technology exists that is capable of economic extraction of rare earths from them, which creates a big challenge and an opportunity.

    (…) 

    Our results demonstrate the technical and economic feasibility of coupling bioengineering with biosorption for REE extraction from low-grade feedstocks.”

    ARPN followers know about the importance of Rare Earth Elements, which, while graced with obscure-sounding names — our favorite is Dysprosium, derived from the Greek dysprositos, “hard to get” — are becoming increasingly indispensable components of 21st century gadgetry and high-tech industrial applications, as well as green energy and defense applications. With the United States’ import reliance for REEs having climbed back to 100% (after a recent brief but temporary reduction) and with more than 90 percent of all global supply coming from China, the supply issue has become ever-more pressing.

    While the bio-recovery effort is certainly no panacea, it represents a commendable step towards reducing our overall mineral resource dependencies – and bears testimony to the ways in which materials science is transforming the way in which we use and obtain metals and minerals. 

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  • Critical Materials Institute Head Puts Apple’s Goal to Stop Mining in Context

    Recently, tech giant Apple made a bit of a splash with the announcement of a lofty sustainability goal — one the company itself is not sure how to achieve yet.

    Kicking off its new Environmental Responsibility Report with the question “Can we one day stop mining the Earth altogether?,” Apple commits itself to working towards a “closed-loop supply chain, where products are built using only renewable resources or recycled material.”

    However, while Apple currently boasts some of the most robust and rigorous sustainability and recycling programs in the entire tech sector, “the goal of a mining-free iPhone is not only far off; at the moment, it’s scientifically impossible,” writes Jason Koebler for Motherboard.  Scientific confirmation of that statement comes from someone who would know: Alex King, director of the Critical Materials Institute at the Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory.

     King, while giving the company credit for making a “noble promise” setting a real “‘stretch goal’ for the company,” points out that while recycling aluminum is easy, the same cannot be said for some of the other materials that make up the iPhone:

    “The current iPhone models use somewhere around 60 or 65 distinct chemical elements, most of which are not recycled at all today and only come from mines.”

    Citing the example of Neodymium — which is used in the iPhone’s speakers and has so far only been recycled in miniscule quantities in research studies rather than on a bigger scale — Benjamin Sprecher, a researcher at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands focused on REE recycling agrees, arguing that “there is no recycling infrastructure in place to produce some of these metals on the scale that Apple requires.”

    Another challenge associated with a “closed loop supply chain” is the question of where materials will come from, if they’re not mined, as, in the words of Alex King,  “[t]hey will certainly not be able to make new iPhones just by recycling the materials in old iPhones. Their recycled materials will most likely come from other kinds of post-consumer scrap.”

    Meanwhile, Apple’s announcement is strategically smart, says Kyle Wiens, CEO for iFixit, precisely because it is ambitious yet vague and has no specific timeline: “It’s 100 percent unattainable today, but it’s a goal that lets them claim progress toward it without proving anything to the rest of us, because it’s a metric that’s independently unverifiable.”

    For the time being, however, with Apple’s promise currently being no more meaningful than say, SpaceX hopes to eventually colonize Mars,” as Koebler bluntly phrases it, policy makers should work towards creating a policy framework that fosters both recycling as well as the responsible harnessing of mineral resources we need today and will increasingly rely on in the future.

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  • North Korean Brinkmanship Highlights Nexus Between Resource Policy and Geopolitics

    At ARPN, we have long highlighted the important but oft-overlooked nexus between resource policy and geopolitics.   The latest case in point is South Korea, which, as ARPN President Daniel McGroarty points out in his latest opinion piece for Fox News, is navigating murky waters “talking sunshine and Rare Earths as North Korean war clouds gather.” For decades, [...]
  • The U.S. Tomahawk Strike – Syria, Russia … and China?

    While the world media mulls the impact of the U.S. airstrike on Syria in the wake of the sarin gas attack and marvel at the accuracy of the Tomahawk cruise missile, friends of ARPN are reminded that the rare earths critical to the Tomahawk’s terminal guidance system are sourced from China. An interesting sidebar to [...]
  • Guest Commentary: Jeff Green On New Congressional REE Policy Initiative

    The following is a guest post by American Resources expert and J.A. Green & Company president and founder Jeffery A. Green The United States has placed itself in a very precarious situation with respect to its ability to produce and refine strategic and critical materials. Over the past few years we have willfully ceded our last remaining [...]
  • USGS Report Bellwether for National Security Crisis?

    For over two decades, the United States Geological Survey has released its Mineral Commodity Summaries report.  And while ARPN followers will know how important this publication is, as it provides a snapshot of our nation’s mineral resource dependencies, in most years its release has gone largely unnoticed beyond the circles of mineral resource wonks. This year, a [...]
  • As Resource Dependence Deepens, Miners Pivot Back to U.S. For Exploration

    Against the backdrop of market prices recovering and supply woes looming, mining companies are expected to increase spending on exploration for the first time in five years, reports news agency Reuters. In what may spell good news for the United States, analysts anticipate the biggest expenditure increases to occur in the United States, Canada and Australia, all [...]
  • China’s REE Stranglehold Comes Back Into Focus

    If the first few weeks with a new administration at the helm in Washington, DC are any indication, we will see more efforts to make sweeping changes in federal policy in the coming weeks.  One area where President Donald Trump promised changes on the campaign trail is trade – and specifically relations with China. In [...]
  • As Japan Retreats, US Dozes Off Again On Critical Minerals

    Over the course of the last few months, slumping prices have prompted Japanese companies to reassess their rare metals strategies and cancel cooperative agreements that were once considered a high priority. As Nikkei Asian Review reports, state-owned Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp. (JOGMEC) has cancelled a joint exploration contract for a tungsten mine in [...]
  • U.S. Forest Service Puts Damper On New Year For Wyoming

    What could have been a great start of the year for Wyoming’s economy and the United States’ critical resource needs had the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) done its job, feels more like a hangover thanks to the agency. As Laura Skaer, executive director of the American Exploration & Mining Association, writes for the Casper Star Tribune, the [...]

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