China’s growing dominance of critical metals production and stockpiles is setting off global alarms. It has American manufacturers in a bind as they ramp up domestic electric vehicle (EV) battery production.
Ores containing these elements are in deposits across our planet. However, the technology to process them is largely in China. As the China Communist Party (CCP) under Xi Jinping exerts its leverage, America and its allies are facing global economic and military challenges. China is tightening export allocations which is correspondingly driving up prices.
It is exacerbated as the United States and other developed countries rapidly move from internal combustion engines to EVs. The Chinese have the upper hand, however, it is critical to break the stranglehold the CCP has on lithium, nickel, cobalt and “rare earth” minerals production and supplies. Simply put, America must broaden global production and supply chains.
The 17 elements classified as “rare earth” are not commonly known, but they are critical components in products such as smartphones, laptop computers, EV batteries, and for jet engines, wind turbines, LEDs and major weapon systems.
Rare earth metals have unique magnetic, luminescent and electrochemical properties which make many technologies perform with reduced weight, emissions and energy consumption.
To counter China’s grip, the U.S. government is investing billions. For example, West Virginia University (WVU) received an $8 million grant, through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, “to develop a first-of-a-kind facility to extract and separate rare earth elements and critical minerals and materials from mining wastes.”
A key test project is in Butte, Montana, which was known as the “Richest Hill on Earth” because of its vast gold, silver and copper mining operations, however, the focus now is extraction of rare earth minerals.
Butte’s mammoth Berkeley Pit is one of the world’s largest superfund sites. The pit has been described as a giant sink which collects metal-laden, acidic water from over 10,000 miles of underground mine workings.
It has become a ticking timber bomb since 1982 when Atlantic Richfield, the mining operations owner, turned off the pumps which kept the subsurface tunnels dry for copper miners. By 2014, the pit collected 43 billion gallons of toxic water, which is chock-full of rare earth elements, such as neodymium, dysprosium, cerium, lanthanum, yttrium, praseodymium and europium.
WVU researcher Paul Ziemkiewicz is leading a team collecting water from the pit to test processes for extracting rare earths. Toxic water from the pit is sent to WVU, which is researching ways to concentrate rare earths to a point where they produce metals that can be sold and used in defense and everyday products.
WVU’s research extends nationwide. In technical terms, it is using acid mine drainage and mineral tailings feedstocks with at-source pollution treatment. Intermediate products will be processed to high-purity oxides, salts or metals depending on specific market needs.
“There are billions of tons of coal waste and ash, mine tailings, acid mine drainage and discharged water contain a wide variety of valuable minerals that can be produced and used to build clean energy technologies, while helping to create healthier environments for communities across the country,” according to WVU.
Wall Street Journal reporter Liza Lin wrote in 2021, “China is in the midst of a new trillion-dollar program to develop next-generation technologies as it seeks to catapult itself ahead of the U.S. in critical technology areas.”
The focus is artificial intelligence, data centers, mobile communications and superfast cellular (5G) networks. Its success hinges on controlling essential metals.
While the rest of the world plays “catch-up,” America must invest to increase its stockpiles, support alliances to offset China’s dominance, encourage recycling of metals currently in the system and develop processes to recover critical minerals from toxic mining wastes.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.