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It’s Not Just Critical Mineral Development and Processing — China Also Has Leg Up When it Comes to Recycling

Followers of ARPN are well aware that China has long dominated the global mineral resource wars on the development and processing fronts, and the United States in recent months has taken a series of unprecedented steps in an effort to decouple U.S. critical mineral supply chains from China.

A recent paper published by the American Chemical Society (ACS) zeros in on recycling of Lithium-ion batteries and shows that untangling the web of mineral resource dependencies is even more complicated than it looks on the surface, as China is not only the fat spider in the net when it comes to resource development and processing, but also has a leg up on the United States when it comes to recycling.

Writes Maria Virginia Olano in a recent piece discussing said paper for Canary Media:

“China is the global leader in recycling of lithium-ion batteries, far outpacing all other nations. As of late 2021, China had more than three times as much existing and planned lithium-ion battery recycling capacity as the U.S..”

Olano adds that China began promoting lithium-ion battery recycling via policy as early as ten years ago, and has since adopted a regulatory framework conducive to spurring the creation of an entire lithium-ion battery recycling sector, with a 2018 regulation requiring manufacturers to “collaborate with recycling companies to improve the recycling process.”

Meanwhile, in the United States, according to Olano, “lithium-ion battery recycling is a nascent industry, but it’s starting to develop.” Policy efforts are underway, but measures “that would support or even super-charge the industry have not yet been adopted.”

The Department of Defense’s report in response to last year’s Executive Order 14017, Securing America’s Supply Chains titled “Securing Defense-Critical Supply Chains” released this spring assessed supply chains in the defense industrial base and reached a similar conclusion:

Building upon the Department of Energy’s 2021 National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries and last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law, the report stresses Beijing’s global supply chain dominance “in all aspects of the lithium battery market” and, according to a legal summary, “identified a standards gap that creates a barrier to successful DoD leveraging of the $515 billion in active global auto industry investment in advanced battery technology.” The report, according to the summary, further concludes that “domestic preferences and other incentives built into DoD acquisitions are insufficient to generate the type of demand required to benefit from domestic battery production.”

Both the ACS study and the DoD report make clear that to succeed in the 21st century resource wars, we must be ready to engage on all fronts.

A piecemeal approach that leverages only certain aspects of the policy spectrum or only focuses on “friend shoring” or research and development is insufficient to meet the challenge. As the stakes continue to rise, the only path forward lies in the context of a true “all-of-the-above” approach from mine to manufacturing and beyond, across the entire value chain.

The mining industry, building on decades of innovation and the materials science revolution stands ready to meet the challenge. Now it is up to policy stakeholders to created the framework conducive to unleashing U.S. ingenuity and our nation’s resource potential.