It seems that all of a sudden there is talk of mineral shortages and two metals which are thought to be plentiful in the Earth’s crust, nickel and zinc, have been added to the list of minerals now deemed critical to the United States, a list recently updated by the U.S. Geological Survey.
Partly, the concern is that the United States is not producing enough of its own nickel and zinc to rest easy over the availability of these metals on world markets. Nickel’s new status stems in part from its emerging role in electric vehicle batteries. There is only one operating U.S. nickel mine. The situation with zinc is less concerning since there are 14 mines and three smelters.
There has long been concern about Rare Earth Elements (REEs) crucial to the computer and renewable energy infrastructure. Part of the concern is China’s domination of the production of these minerals. Chinese mines supplied 55 percent of all REEs mined worldwide in 2020 and its REE refineries produced 85 percent of all refined products.
What has always lurked in the background in the form of “critical” and “strategic” minerals lists is the use of these minerals in military as well as commercial applications. The U.S. Defense Logistics Agency has long maintained a strategic materials stockpile “[t]o decrease and preclude dependence upon foreign sources or single points of failure for strategic materials in times of national emergency.”
But the trouble with minerals is they have a habit of concentrating in places far from where they are needed and under the soil of countries without the factories to utilize them. If it were just a question of, say, turning agricultural produce into a value added product such as cotton clothing from cotton grown in the same country, that would be one thing.
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