American Resources Policy Network
Promoting the development of American mineral resources.
  • “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.

  • USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries 2022 — Amidst Greater Focus on Supply Chain Security, Mineral Resource Dependence Persists

    We’ve named it the year of the Supply Chain, noting that others said “2021 is the year ‘supply chain’ went from jargon to meme.”

    While an increased focus on the supply chain was undoubtedly a critical development in the mineral resource realm, and several steps to increase supply chain security for critical minerals were taken in 2021, overall mineral resource dependency trend lines remained largely unchanged.

    On the day urban legend identifies as the point in the new year’s calendar where we are most likely to abandon our New Year’s Resolutions, we take our first  look at the latest hot-0ff-the-press USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries report released this Monday, shows that we are still 100% import dependent for 17 of the metals and minerals included in the USGS report — a number that remains unchanged from the previous year and the year before that.   If we left 2021 resolved to make supply chains a priority in 2022, the new USGS report shows this is a resolution we’ve made before.

    And looking ahead to February 2, it’s a little like Bill Murray’s classic “Ground Hog Day” in the Critical Minerals world, where the clock clicks to the same day all over again – in the Critical Minerals movie, to a situation of deep dependency on foreign sourced metals and minerals.

    Once more, we can’t help but observe that this represents a stark contrast to our import reliance for metals and minerals in 1984, when we were 100% import reliant for just 11 mineral commodities.

    A deeper look at the chart depicting U.S. Net Import Reliance — or the “Blue Wall of Dependency,” as we have dubbed it based on the many overly blue bars showing our significant degree of import dependence, reveals that the number of metals and minerals for which we are 50% or more import dependent is also once again unchanged over last year — with the report pegging it at 47.

    A few changes, however, are notable and significant, particularly in the context of the accelerating global green energy transition:

    For the Rare Earths, a key group of tech metals underpinning 21st Century technology and the accelerating green energy transition, our import reliance dropped from 100% in the 2021 report to currently “greater than 90%.”  That said, the rare earth concentrate being extracted in the U.S. are currently sent to China for separation.  Once again, a single link lacking in a supply chain continues U.S. dependency.

    And for Lithium, perhaps the most frequently cited battery tech mineral (aside from Cobalt, Nickel, Graphite, and Manganese) U.S. import reliance has dropped significantly from “greater than 50%” to “greater than 25%.”

    On the other hand, import dependence for Copper, another (and often overlooked) key component of green energy technology, has increased from 37% to 45%.

    As in previous iterations of the report, China continues to be the elephant in the data room. And against all pledges in recent years for the United States to reduce import reliance on supplies from China, the 2022 Mineral Commodity Summaries lists China 25 times as one of the major import sources of metals and minerals for which our net import reliance is 50% or greater, which is up by one.

    Of course, the sourcing of critical minerals is only one segment of the supply chain, and, as a recent look at the complete clean energy supply chain by Visual Capitalist has revealed, China has not only established itself as a global lead supplier of critical minerals. The country has also established dominance in the processing segment. (Take a look at our latest post on the issue here.)

    While the urgency of the need to secure critical mineral supply chains has registered with stakeholders over the past two years, USGS’s findings underscore once more that supply chains in the 21st Century are extremely complex and meaningful change takes time.

    However, as ARPN’s Dan McGroarty phrased it during a congressional hearing in 2019 – “we can’t admire the problem anymore. We don’t have the luxury of time.”

    Securing our supply chains is a behemoth task – and it is too complex to address piecemeal, but it is not impossible. To successfully address the issue, our focus must be across the entire value chain from mine to manufacturing and must encompass an “all of the above” approach we have come to know from the energy realm.

    If we are able to do that in the coming months, maybe 2022 can be the year that strengthening tech metal supply chains can move from resolution to reality.

  • ARPN’s 2021 Word of the Year: Supply Chain

    ARPN’s Year in Review —   a Last Look Back at the United States’ Critical Mineral Resource Challenge in 2021 Well, two words, for the sticklers.  Merriam Webster may have gone with “vaccine,” but for ARPN, there was really no doubt. As one article put it, “2021 is the year ‘supply chain’ went from jargon to [...]
  • Nickel and Zinc “Only Two New Additions” to Draft Revised Critical Minerals List — A Look at the Government’s Reasoning

    This week we continue our coverage of the just-released draft revised Critical Minerals List, for which the US Geological Survey (USGS) began soliciting public comment last week — this time via Andy Home’s latest.  In a new column for Reuters, Home zeroes in on the “only two new additions” to the draft list. (As ARPN outlined [...]
  • Two For Four — New Critical Minerals Draft List Includes Two of Four Metals Recommended For Inclusion by ARPN in 2018

    With the addition of 15 metals and minerals bringing the total number up to 50, this year’s draft updated Critical Minerals List, for which USGS just solicited public comment, is significantly longer than its predecessor. This, as USGS notes, is largely the result of “splitting the rare earth elements and platinum group elements into individual entries [...]
  • USGS Seeks Public Comment on Draft Revised Critical Minerals List

    On November 9, 2021, the U.S. Geological Survey announced it is seeking public comment, on a draft revised list of critical minerals.  The revised list is the latest development in a broader move towards a more comprehensive mineral resource policy on the part of the U.S. Government — a long-overdue shift that began to gain steam in [...]
  • Close Allies Map Critical Mineral Cooperation

    “Do I have to draw you a map?” As idioms go, that phrase is much nicer than the message it intends – but it’s apt for a new exercise linking the collective expertise of the geological surveys of Australia, Canada and the U.S.: an interactive world map of deposits of rare earths and other critical [...]
  • USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries: Mineral Resource Dependencies Continue in 2020

    2020 may go down in history as the year in which our world changed drastically, but one thing remained largely steady, according to the latest USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries, one of our favorite reports which is hot off the press: Our nation’s mineral resource dependencies. However, as followers of ARPN will know, that is hardly [...]
  • Event Alert: “Critical Minerals Forum 2021” – A February Webinar Series on Critical Mineral Research

    It’s 2021, and the wild ride 2020 has taken us on continues. There were quite a few developments in the critical minerals realm over the past few months (for a recap see our two summary posts here and here, but if you thought things were about to slow down, you might be wrong. While emphases [...]
  • U.S. Over-Reliance on Critical Minerals — Are the Chickens Coming Home to Roost?

    The current coronavirus pandemic has shed a light on an inconvenient truth. We have become over-reliant on foreign (and especially Chinese) raw materials. As we previously outlined, “PPE has become the poster child, but whether it’s smart phone technology, solar panels, electric vehicles, or fighter jets — critical minerals are integrated into all aspects of [...]