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American Resources Policy Network
Promoting the development of American mineral resources.
  • 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 Platinum and Palladium, in the process of which it serves as a hardening agent, Rhodium is also used in furnace windings, and thermo-coupling elements, to name but a few industrial applications. The exceptional hardness of plated Rhodium, which is derived by electroplating or evaporation, further lends itself to the metal’s application in optical instruments.

    USGS does not track production numbers or net import reliance statistics for Rhodium as a stand-alone metal; however, considering that there is currently only one domestic mining company producing PGMs — and that U.S. import dependence on the two PGMs USGS does track is 90% for Platinum and 58% for Palladium — plus the fact that we import roughly 11,000 kg of Rhodium per year, our import dependence to meet domestic needs is in all likelihood not insignificant.

    As is the case with Palladium, new applications for the metal may become game-changers going forward and may drive up demand. One such recent discovery is the unveiling of a chemical process“using the sun’s thermal energy to convert carbon dioxide and water directly into high-energy fuels.”  In what may turn out to be a big step towards the chemical storage of solar energy, researchers at the Switzerland-based Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) and the ETH Zurich have developed a procedure to do so using a new material combination of Cerium Oxide and Rhodium.  While this potential application is quite interesting, friends of ARPN will note that a compound comprised of two elements for which the U.S. is significantly import-dependent illustrates once again the constraints on the United States’ ability to capitalize on advanced materials development.

    What we have argued elsewhere, applies for Rhodium, too – the revolution in materials science represents a paradigm shift for traditional supply and demand scenarios for the raw materials that fuel it.  It’s time for a new comprehensive approach to mineral resource policy that embraces these changes -  especially as we move into a potential period of uncertainty on the trade front.

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  • 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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  • Through the Gateway: Germanium – Semiconductor of the Future?

    Our first Zinc co-product, Germanium, is a silvery metalloid.  According to USGS, “in nature, it never exists as the native metal in nature” and “is rarely found in commercial quantities in the few minerals in which it is an essential component.” That said, the “most commercially important germanium-bearing ore deposits are zinc or lead-zinc deposits formed at low temperature.” Discovered [...]
  • Through the Gateway: Vanadium – Next-Gen Uses Drive Co-Product Challenge

    As we continue our look “Through the Gateway,” one thing has become abundantly clear already:  Beyond their traditional uses, both Gateway Metals and their Co-Products have become building blocks of our renewable energy future.  This held true for Copper and its Co-Products, but it is also equally true for Aluminum and its Co-Products. While Gallium’s [...]
  • Through the Gateway: Aluminum – Fueling the Renaissance of American Manufacturing

    Aluminum is not only one of the most sustainable materials these days, it is also making headlines – most recently during the North American Leaders Summit, also dubbed “Three Amigos Summit” held at the end of June in Ottawa, Canada.  Invoking challenges associated with China’s trade policy, President Obama called for the North American countries to [...]
  • Independence Day – A Time To Celebrate Our Freedom, Yet Be Mindful of Growing Dependencies

    It’s that time of the year again. We’re filling our shopping carts with food and drinks, making sure we have enough gas for the grill, and buying some fireworks. The 4th of July, and with that, Independence Day, has arrived. But our country’s 240th birthday is more than a good reason to throw a barbecue in honor [...]
  • Through the Gateway: Molybdenum – “The Most Important Element You Have Never Heard Of?”

    A writer for Gizmodo has dubbed it the “most important element you have never heard of.”  Writes Esther Inglis-Arkell: “Molybdenum, with its 42 protons and 54 neutrons, sits right in the middle of the periodic table being completely ignored. It’s not useless. (…) It just doesn’t have that indefinable sexiness about it.” Inglis-Arkell explains Molybdenum’s biochemical relevance: Taken [...]
  • 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 [...]
  • American Geosciences Institute Webinar on “The Science and Supply of America’s Critical Minerals and Materials”

    Earlier this week, the American Geosciences Institute hosted a webinar entitled “Underpinning Innovation: The Science and Supply of America’s Critical Minerals and Materials.” Speakers for the event, which was co-sponsored by a variety of expert organizations, included: Lawrence D. Meinert, Mineral Resources Program, U.S. Geological Survey; Steven M. Fortier, National Minerals Information Center, U.S. Geological [...]
  • Is Cobalt on Your Radar Yet?

    Last week, we highlighted what has been one of the bright spots in the metals and minerals sphere in recent months – Lithium.  Potentially one of the most important critical materials of our time because of its application in battery technology, its rise to stardom has cast a shadow on another material that may be [...]

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