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The Mining Industry is Ready to Strengthen American Supply Chains

With the release of its 100-Day Supply Chain Report, the Biden Administration has sent a strong signal that it is serious about stepping up U.S. efforts to secure domestic supply chains — especially for the four areas covered by the report: semiconductor manufacturing and advanced packaging; pharmaceuticals and active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), and, of particular interest for followers of ARPN, large capacity batteries, as well as critical minerals and materials.

In its commitment to ensure a stable supply for these tech sectors, the Administration has embraced an “all of the above” approach to critical mineral security, which spans all segments of the supply chain and a broad array of strategies. In the run-up to the Report’s release, there were news reports that the Administration would focus on expanding domestic processing and rely on allies and other nations to mine the minerals and metals. However, both the 100-Day Supply Chain Assessment and subsequent statements by Administration officials like Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm have made clear that the “all of the above” referenced by DoD, or the “wrap-around strategy” Sec. Granholm has touted, would not only include recycling and substitution as well as partnering with close allies such as Canada and Australia, but also new domestic mining — with the caveat that it be “sustainable” and “responsible.”

This is good news for the mining sector, which has recognized “[its] responsibility and trying to meet the increased expectations of consumers, society and governments” to contribute towards the push towards a greener energy future and has increasingly been harnessing advances in materials science and technology to meet the challenge of developing a domestic critical minerals supply while maintaining and advancing responsible mining practices.

Over the past few months, ARPN has been highlighting initiatives by mining companies to sustainably green the future, ranging from overhauling supply chain policies to ensure suppliers conform to certain environmental and social standards, to incorporating renewable power sources into their operations to offset some of the carbon costs of resource development. With the 100 Day Report focusing a new level of attention on critical minerals supply chains, ARPN is spotlighting several new initiatives across the entire spectrum of the supply chain, from upstream to downstream.

- DoE has provided funding for BHE Renewables’s lithium extraction efforts from geothermal brine at its operations in the Salton Sea, California, where the almost $15 million award will go towards constructing a demonstration plant to convert lithium chloride into battery-grade lithium hydroxide.

- U.S.-based precious metals producing and processing group Comstock Mining has partnered with others to “deploy novel [clean energy] technologies for gold processing and extraction across its portfolio” and aims to “efficiently reprocess and renew silver and other strategic metals as part of a ‘clean energy transition’ towards ‘climate-smart mining.’”

- Having developed a patented process for recycling cathode materials from spent lithium-ion batteries, Canada-based American Manganese, an industry member of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Institute (CMI), is working with U.S. National Labs to “promote a circular economy for the lithium-ion battery supply chain and set the standard for high recovery and purity of cathode materials from spent lithium-ion batteries.” American Manganese’s battery recycling work even received a “shout-out” in the White House’s 100 Day Report.

- Rio Tinto has announced plans to construct a new plant to recover tellurium, a co-product of copper refining and a material critical to the green energy transition, at its Kennecott mine in the Utah. By harnessing an innovative extraction processes at an already existing mine site, the company is able to reduce waste while adhering to federal and state environmental standards and minimizing the carbon footprint of the operation – achievements that align well with the 100 Day Report’s objectives.

- Epiroc, a Europe-based developer/producer of drill rigs, rock excavation and construction equipment, has updated its North American underground mining market strategy to reflect “increasing demand for electrification solutions that deliver savings on maintenance, ventilation and cooling while lessening environmental footprint.” The strategy seeks to support North American mining operations through battery-electric, zero-emission equipment.

- Clean energy start-up Heliogen has announced a partnership with Rio Tinto to deploy its solar technology at the the largest open pit mine in California, Rio Tinto’s borate project in Boron, California. Using artificial intelligence and computer-vision-controlled mirrors, Heliogen will harness the power of the sun to power operations while cutting the project’s carbon footprint.

- And more is happening at Boron: Drawing on its longstanding partnership with DOE’s CMI, Rio Tinto has begun producing battery-grade lithium at a demonstration plant located at the operation using a new extraction process developed on-site. As part of the company’s full-value mining strategy, the global miner seeks to recover lithium out of waste piles stemming from more than 90 years of mining at the site.

- Barrick Gold Corporation is looking to reprocess tailings at the currently-closed Golden Sunlight Mine in Montana. The project would focus on removing and concentrating sulfur (iron pyrite) —a source of potential water pollution from the mine site. The sulfur would then be sold to and used in gold production by Nevada Gold Mines (NGM). According to Barrick company statements, the combination of rehabilitation with value creation would serve as a model for Barrick’s future mine closures.

Of course, more can and should be done. But, as Secretary Granholm told U.S. Senators last week:

“This is the United States. We can mine in a responsible way. And many places are doing it. And there are some places where there are more challenges, but we can do this.”