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“Critical” Without the Label? – A Look at Boron

While critical mineral resource policy is finally receiving the attention it deserves against the backdrop of increasing supply chain challenges, a look at the materials stealing the spotlight would have you believe the list of metals and minerals deemed critical from a U.S. national and economic security perspective is much shorter than it is.

The battery criticals (lithium, cobalt, graphite, nickel, and manganese) underpinning the EV revolution are certainly making a splash, and, while a few years ago the term “rare earth elements” seemed to raise eyebrows, their appearance in today’s headlines is not exactly a rare occurrence anymore.

As followers of ARPN well know, the official U.S. Government Critical Minerals List is much longer, and has grown from 35 in its first iteration in 2018 to 50 in 2022, though much of that change is a result of individually listing materials previously listed in groupings (for a detailed breakdown see ARPN’s posts from earlier this year here).

However, despite some additions to the list, there are still some materials that, despite their status as key component for many emerging and established products, have slipped through the cracks and are “consistently overlooked largely due to the mundane, or overly complex, industries it plays a role in” – as Seeking Alpha phrases it in his recent profile piece on “Boron: The Overlooked Critical Material.”

The piece takes a closer look at the “growing market for boron and its strength moving forward,” arguing that “[w]ith uses across multiple industries, some of which are in the process of explosive growth, boron looks set to experience a supercycle of its own,” with most of the Western world quietly recognizing it as a strategic material even as “the major EV battery metals have stolen much of the spotlight shone on critical materials.”

Glass and ceramics manufacturing, where boron has for centuries reduced glass viscosity and increased durability and improved thermal management, account for roughly 50% of the material’s commercial usage, while fertilizer applications are estimated to consume roughly 20%.

Courtesy of the ongoing and ever-accelerating materials science revolution, boron’s use in glass today also extends to solar panels – a market that is set to explode, growing at over 20% per year until 2026, according to Seeking Alpha. With “up to 70% of the world’s electricity (…) expected to be generated by wind and solar by 2050” and with “electricity generation also rising 2.5x by the same period, boron’s utilization in both technologies” will likely drive demand scenarios for boron up significantly, as will its application in neodymium magnets, formally known as NdFeB magnets, with the elemental symbol “B” denoting boron. While by weight, boron only accounts for just 1% in the material composition of a neodymium magnet, demand for these magnets is set to skyrocket “as they become the default choice for use in EV motors,” and are widely used in wind turbines, thus further fueling demand.

According to a recent Bloomberg Government piece, movement on the critical mineral status designation for boron may be on the horizon. Writes Roxana Tiron:

“The U.S. Defense Logistics Agency lists boron as a strategic material because it is used as a component of composite materials (boron fibers) in advanced aerospace structures and as an industrial catalyst to make things like polymers. It also plays a major role in electroplating nickel, lead, and tin; in inner plates of ballistic vests; and for tank armor (carbon boride) and permanent neodymium (NdFeB) magnets, according to DLA. 

The strategic designation allows the Defense Department to stockpile the materials.

But strategic materials and critical minerals aren’t necessarily the same thing. It depends which agency reviews the materials and makes the designation.”

The USGS’s National Minerals Information Center director Steven Fortier told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in testimony earlier this spring that, while “important” to U.S. national and economic security, boron so far hasn’t met the critical mineral definition because, in light of domestic production levels, “the U.S. is not highly reliant on imports for these minerals and typically has a combination of domestic reserves and reliable foreign sources adequate to meet foreseeable domestic consumption requirements.”

Meanwhile, as Seeking Alpha points out“the supply chain for boron is pretty weak at the moment,” with Turkey currently accounting for 62% of global boron sales.  With Rio Tinto Group’s long-lived California-based U.S. Borax mine, the U.S. continues to remain a net exporter, but with demand rising “many of the boron deposits around the world only produce the element in small quantities, and wouldn’t exactly be considered major boron deposits.” Boron’s geological profile leads Seeking Alpha to conclude that “[e]ven if all 1,057,000 tonnes of new boric acid production come online, supply is incapable of matching demand.” 

And of course, in familiar fashion, most of the processing of the material into boron carbide today occurs in China.  As one sign that the U.S. Government is beginning to take note, 5E Advanced Materials’s Fort Cady project in California, while not yet operational, has already received a “critical infrastructure” designation from the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

Boron may not have met the threshold for the official U.S. government-wide “critical minerals” designation yet – but from boron fiber and ballistic vests to tank armor and permanent magnets, there is certainly a compelling case for watching the material closely going forward.