Against the backdrop of surging demand for critical minerals and increasing geopolitical tensions, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is forging ahead with its efforts to strengthen the U.S. defense industrial base. The Department is stepping up its efforts to award funding for projects to encourage domestic development of the Battery Criticals (lithium, graphite, cobalt, nickel and manganese), and what ARPN has dubbed the “Defense Criticals” – a new category of critical minerals effectively created by designating airbreathing engines, advanced avionics navigation and guidance systems, and hypersonic systems and their “constitutent materials” as priority Defense Production Act (DPA) materials via Presidential Determination. (see ARPN’s latest post on the issue for more background)
ARPN outlined several of these DoD-funded projects to strengthen critical mineral supply chains in an earlier post. This past week, DoD added two more projects to the list.
On September 12, 2023, DoD announced that the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Industrial Base Policy, through its Manufacturing Capability Expansion and Investment Prioritization (MCEIP) office, has entered an agreement with Albemarle Corporation to support the expansion of domestic mining and production of lithium.
Per DoD’s announcement, “[t]he $90 million agreement, entered into under Defense Production Act (DPA) Title III authorities and utilizing funds appropriated by the Inflation Reduction Act, will help support Albemarle’s planned re-opening of their Kings Mountain, N.C. lithium mine to increase domestic production of lithium for the nation’s battery supply chain. Albemarle estimates that Kings Mountain will be operational between 2025 and 2030.”
Sometimes hailed the “fuel of the green revolution,” lithium has been the posterchild of the “battery criticals.” Start with the fact that the leading battery technology underpinning the shift towards net zero carbon emissions is called “lithium-ion.” With its high electrochemical potential and light weight, the commercialization of the lithium-ion battery has transformed and accelerated the renewables shift. Lithium is a key component of the battery cathode, and the EV market and demand for renewable energy storage are key drivers for soaring lithium demand.
Meanwhile, as global lithium production has quadrupled since 2010, the U.S. share of production has dropped significantly. Once the largest producer of lithium in the 1990s, the United States’ share of production has dropped to 1 percent of the global total, as Australia, Chile and China dominate the field.
A second award announcement made on the same day aims at strengthening the nickel supply chain, and was also made through the Manufacturing Capability Expansion and Investment Prioritization (MCEIP) office of the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Industrial Base Resilience:
The $20.6 million agreement with Talon Nickel (USA), LLC – also entered into under DPA Title III authorities — uses funds appropriated by the Additional Ukraine Supplemental Appropriations Act to advance nickel exploration and mineral resource definition of the Tamarack Intrusive Complex in northeast Minnesota.
The Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Industrial Base Resilience, through its Manufacturing Capability Expansion and Investment Prioritization (MCEIP) office, entered an agreement with Talon Nickel (USA), LLC (Talon) to increase the domestic production of nickel.
The $20.6 million agreement, entered into under Defense Production Act (DPA) Title III authorities and using funds appropriated by the Additional Ukraine Supplemental Appropriations Act, to advance nickel exploration and mineral resource definition of the Tamarack Intrusive Complex (TIC). Here, the company seeks to leverage its Advanced Exploration System (AES) — a proprietary suite of geophysical mapping tools that has already completed a successful pilot program and allows the company to rapidly identify and demonstrate economically recoverable nickel materials.
A key battery critical, nickel is also an essential building block for the production of high-temperature aerospace alloys and stainless steel. A “relatively benign supply profile” kept nickel off the U.S. Government’s first List of Critical Minerals in 2018. However, the metal’s increased usage in EV batteries, and the USGS’s expanded criticality criteria to include materials with only a single domestic producer along their raw materials supply chains – identified as having a single point of failure – led to nickel’s incorporation into the 2021 update to the U.S. Government Critical Minerals List. The United States’ only primary nickel mine in operation, the Eagle Mine in Michigan, is nearing the end of its life cycle.
While, as ARPN previously outlined, increased domestic production for critical minerals alone may not suffice to fully solve our nation’s critical mineral woes – hence ARPN’s support for an all-of-the-above approach to mineral resource security — there are promising domestic resource development projects that can go a long way to significantly reducing vulnerabilities in the short to medium term, and ARPN will continue tracking these DoD-funded projects as they begin to bear fruit.