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With Asteroid Mining Likely Unattainable for the Time Being, U.S. Must Focus on Reducing Supply Chain Vulnerabilities – Here on Earth

According to NASA, the Hubble Telescope earlier this month collected imagery of an asteroid “so rich in metals that its worth puts our global economy to shame.”

Already discovered in 1852, the celestial body is located in the Solar System’s main asteroid belt, roughly 370 million km from Earth. The object, which has been called 16 Psyche, is composed almost entirely of nickel and iron. A planned NASA mission to study the asteroid’s properties is set to launch in August of 2021, with a planned arrival at the celestial body in 2026. As Mining.com notes a little tongue-in-cheek, “[i]f the mission could kindly bring the asteroid back to Earth, every person on the planet — all 7.8 billion of us — would get roughly $1.2 billion, based on current metal prices.”

It’s a fascinating development, and harnessing the metal potential 16 Psyche would certainly take care of a looming nickel shortage some have been warning of — one of many mineral resource challenges we are facing and the extent of which has been brought to the forefront by the current coronavirus pandemic.

However, at least at this point in time, all talk about and funding/legislation for asteroid mining aside — space mining is little more than pie in the sky thinking.

Meanwhile, on Planet Earth, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order declaring a critical minerals national emergency aimed at expanding terrestrial, i.e. U.S. domestic production of rare-earth and other critical minerals in an effort to reduce dependence on China. Among other things, the order directs the Department of the Interior to explore the application of the Defense Production Act — used earlier in the year to accelerate production of medical supplies in the context of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — to promote domestic resource production and development.

In the context of the executive order, efforts to bring critical materials into the U.S. supply chain are currently underway. Here are a few examples, some of which draw on close cooperation with trusted allies Canada and Australia:

  • Only days after the executive order, the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) announced the U.S. government’s taking of a $25 million equity stake in Dublin-based battery metals miner TechMet as part of the president’s push to reduce our nation’s over-reliance on supply chains dominated by China. The investment will help the company develop a nickel and cobalt mine in Brazil.
  • Later in October, the United States Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) awarded American Manganese (AMY) a grant to perform work on the United States Government’s manganese ore stockpile located near Wenden, Arizona, with the goal of producing electrolytic manganese metal (EMM), a form currently on the U.S. National Defense Stockpile purchase list.
  • In light of the closure of the last domestic titanium sponge plant in August, the U.S. is looking for a way to re-establish its titanium supply chain via Australian mining explorer Tao Commodities acquiring an option on a titanium and zircon project in Tennessee. The project site is only minutes away from one of the world’s largest titanium-consuming pigment plants. The owner of said facility, U.S.-based Chemours, has also opened a new facility in Georgia which will produce titanium dioxide (TiO2) pigment, as well as zircon.
  • And moving from titanium to equally critical co-products, an example of reducing vulnerabilities at the processing level of the supply chain comes to us via our allies to the North, where global miner Rio Tinto has developed a way to extract scandium from waste tailings in the titanium dioxide production process in one of its production facilities in Quebec, Canada.

Perhaps unlike any other event in recent history, the coronavirus pandemic has put a magnifying glass over the United States’ supply chain vulnerabilities in the context of a globalized world.

The fate of the most recent executive order on critical minerals hangs in the balance in the wake of the Presidential election — an incoming Biden Administration may alter or rescind the executive order altogether, and we may see some policy shifts.

However, in the grand scheme of things, with the order being a direct response to our increasingly obvious over-reliance on foreign (and especially Chinese) critical minerals, and China’s penchant for playing politics when holding leverage over its adversaries, the push to reduce our mineral resource vulnerabilities will continue, irrespective of who will occupy the White House — and we at ARPN will be here to keep track.