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.

  • 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 in 1886, it was initially considered a “weakly conducting metal without much use”, but Germanium has been an important factor in semiconductor technology since the development of the world’s first transistor in 1947 – the purified Germanium semiconductor.   Today, its main uses worldwide, according to USGS, are estimated to be fiber optics, infrared optics, polymerization catalysts, electronics and solar applications.   There has been some fluctuation in domestic consumption – consumption for fiber optics for space-based uses increased while infrared optics use declined — but that decline was partially offset by growth in commercial and personal markets.

    In the semiconducting sector, Germanium was superseded by Silicon as the material of choice, but, according to Purdue University researchers, that may soon change. Silicon’s properties limit the ability to make smaller transistors and more compact integrated circuits, making Germanium all the more attractive for future advances in this field.

    While there is some domestic Germanium production, most of it comes from “either the processing of imported Germanium compounds or the recycling of domestic industry-generated scrap,” while Germanium recovered from zinc concentrates at two domestic mines is exported for processing. All told, the U.S. is 85% import dependent for its domestic Germanium needs.

    Meanwhile, it might be worth taking a look at the British Geological Society’s latest Risk List – an assessment of “current supply risk for elements or element groups which are of economic value” – which assigns Germanium the fourth highest risk score on its “relative supply risk index.”  The main factor here is one that ARPN followers will find familiar: nine of the top ten metals in BGS’s risk list count China as the world’s primary producer.

    Christopher Ecclestone, discussing the issue for InvestorIntel, raises a good point:

    “The Chinese don’t dominate Gallium, Germanium and Antimony because they are the only country that has these metals. It is only because of a conscious policy on the part of the Chinese government and an unconscious acquiescence on the part of West that has allowed this situation to evolve. A goal for 2020 (dare we call it a Five Year Plan) should be to break the Chinese dominance in the top ten metals on this BGS list.” 

    Once again, the path to co-product access leads “Through the Gateway” – in this case, most often Zinc. And in spite of having significant known resources of Zinc, the U.S. is 82% import-dependent on this gateway metal.

  • 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 Yave 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 [...]
  • Is Lithium the New Black?

    At a time when mineral commodities have been slumping, one material is proving to be the exception to the rule, leading many to hail lithium as “a rare bright spot for miners, amid cratering prices of raw materials tied to heavy industry such as iron ore to coal.”  Via our friend Simon Moores, managing director [...]