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Tellurium – a critical mineral to be watched

In her latest piece for ProEdgeWire, Robin Bromby suggests that Tellurium may well be the newest critical metal. Citing two “throwaway lines” from recent reports and media reporting which indicate increased demand for the metal, Bromby goes on to give reasons why Tellurium should be placed on observers’ critical metals watch lists:

“Tellurium is vital to thin-film cadmium-tellurium solar cells. The report from the South Africa conference noted that if the world suddenly steps up solar energy development, there could be a squeeze on tellurium, citing the figure quoted by Murray Hitzman of the Colorado School of Mines that the U.S, would need 400 tonnes of tellurium for every gigawatt of solar energy, and the known world availability was just 48,000 tonnes (although the U.S. Geological Survey cites 24,000 tonnes — but that takes into account only tellurium contained in copper deposits; after all, some 90% of tellurium used is now recovered from slimes following refining of copper).

The USGS also notes that several materials — including bismuth, calcium, lead, phosphorous, selenium or sulphur — can substitute for tellurium but with loss of efficiency and product characteristics.”

Thus it comes as no major surprise that, as one of the throwaway lines cited by Bromby points out, a solar company has asked geologists to “go out and find [T]ellurium to meet projected needs.” ARPN’s Dan McGroarty must have been on to something when he asked in 2011 “Is Tellurium the ‘new gold?’”

The catch with Tellurium, however, is that you don’t just go out and mine it; the metal is largely a by-product of refining Copper, or, to a lesser extent, Lead and Gold. In other words, as we have argued in our 2012 report “Through the Gateway: Gateway Metals and the Foundations of American Technology,” it is a specialty metal unlocked by the “Gateway Metal” Copper.

With the possibility of supply shortages on the horizon, the example of Tellurium underscores how our mineral resource dependencies stretch beyond well Rare Earths.

In theory, remedies may be easy to come by. “The U.S. is home to more than 5 percent of global [copper] reserves, but U.S. mine production only accounts for 0.16 percent of global reserves — or 3.2 percent of U.S. reserves respectively.”

The Pebble deposit in Alaska, for example, could unlock vast amounts of both Copper and its derivatives for domestic and international use. Meanwhile, this project, which could yield historic amounts of critical minerals, has been met with fierce (and possibly precedent-setting) opposition by anti-mining activists who are calling for a preemptive EPA veto. If you missed Dan McGroarty’s piece in the Wall Street Journal on this complex issue, read it here.

Meanwhile, harnessing our vast domestic mineral potential is not just a good idea, it’s a necessity. As we argue in our Gateway Metals report:

“As both gateway and tech-metals are critical to U.S. commercial manufacturing, green-energy development, technological innovation, and advanced weapons systems, America cannot maintain its modern economy without a steady supply of these key metals and minerals. In a very real sense, these metals are the “gateway” to our future economic, technological and military strength.”