Critical minerals discussed during SME/AusIMM conference in Denver

William Gleason

August 7, 2014

The evolution of technology has made the world a more connected place, it continues to change the way we power our homes and vehicles and is leading to a future that seems to be limitless. Limitless as long as we can continue to supply the minerals necessary for technology to produce better iPhones, more efficient electric cars, better wind turbines and sophisticated national defense systems. These minerals, dubbed critical minerals, have surged in importance in every corner of the world and on Aug 3-4 they were the topic of conversation at the Critical Minerals 2014 conference in Denver, CO.

The conference, hosted by SME and AusIMM, looked at critical minerals from every angle, from where they are found to what the future might be.

Among the minerals that have been called critical are rare earths, a collection of 17 minerals that have become increasingly important as technology continues to advance in everything from communications to energy to national defense.

Leading off the conference, David Abraham, senior fellow at the Institute for Analysis of Global Security, explained that like many people, he is relatively new to rare earths. Unlike most people, though, Abraham developed more than a passing interest in the minerals and has since travelled the world to understand the role of rare earths — where they are found, how they are mined, how they get to market and eventually what applications they are used in. Following his travels, he said he returned concerned about the sector and how the industry will keep up with the demand that only seems to be growing in the modern world.

And Abraham noted that it is not just the developed world that is driving demand, but it stretches even to places like Indonesia where the average annual income is about $3,000/year, yet, the nation is one of the most active places in the world for social media with a population that is wired in with all kinds of electronics.

The problem facing the sector, is, and has been for a long time, and especially since 2010, is supply of the minerals. At one time China produced about 98 percent of the world's supply and controlled the sector completely. In 2010, as the world began to demand more rare earths China announced an export ban on rare earths which changed the game completely, from the production lines all the way to the floor of the U.S. Congress.

"It changed everything," Kathy Benedetto, legislative Staff, U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources said during her luncheon speech on Aug. 6. "After the export ban even some Democrats in the House became worried about where the supply would come from. By virtue of that ban it forced the United States to refocus attention on what minerals are critical to the nation's interests."

As if to drive the point home even more, Bloomberg reported on Aug. 7 that sources say China has bought 10 Mt (11 million st) of rare earths to add to its stockpile in an effort to keep prices high.

While rare earths certainly are critical to the modern world, they are not the only critical minerals.

The definition of critical minerals is a living one. The National Academy of Sciences defined critical minerals in part as: “A mineral can be regarded as critical only if it performs an essential function for which few or no satisfactory substitutes exist.”

Rare earths are in this category as are minerals such as antimony, copper, thorium, tungsten, gallium, indium and tellurium, all of which were discussed during the two-day conference.

"We know that critical minerals are important and that they will be in the future, we just don't know which ones will be the most important, that will depend on technology," said Abrahams.



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