The US is worried about its critical minerals supply chains – essential for electric vehicles, wind power and the nation’s defense


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Jun 16, 2020
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When U.S. companies build military weapons systems, electric vehicle batteries, satellites and wind turbines, they rely heavily on a few dozen “critical minerals” – many of which are mined and refined almost entirely by other countries. Building a single F-35A fighter jet, for example, requires at least 920 pounds of rare earth elements that come primarily from China.

That level of dependence on imports worries the U.S. government.

Natural disasters, civil unrest, trade disputes and company failures can all disrupt a mineral supply chain and the many products that depend on it – making many critical minerals a national security priority.

The U.S. has increased its strategic planning and investment in reliable supply chains in recent years, particularly as China has moved to increase control over critical mineral exports, but the U.S.‘s own mining and recycling of these minerals is still small. This is due in part to how environmentally destructive and polluting many mining and processing operations can be, but also because policy measures are only recently being explored and funded. The U.S. now has a review underway of critical mineral supply chains, and the Department of Energy recently pledged up to US$30 million, on top of funding included in the December pandemic aid package and a 2020 support package for mining.

The question policy experts like ourselves are exploring is how best to provide sustainable and secure critical mineral supply chains in a way that limits environmental damage and promotes good governance.

The list: 35 critical minerals
Critical minerals earn their name from their vital role in products Americans rely on every day.

Over the last 60 years, the U.S. has doubled the number of these minerals it is 100% reliant on other countries to provide. Of the 35 critical minerals identified by the U.S. in 2018, 28 are at least 50% imported.

The U.S. critical minerals list has changed since it was first created by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1973. Many of the same minerals are there, including rare earth elements and lithium, but their relative importance in 1973 was for petroleum refining and making glass, among other goods.

Bauxite is a source of aluminum and gallium, which is used in LEDs. Scott Haworth/USGS
The list today reflects the essential role that renewable energy, electric vehicles and advanced defense technologies have in the U.S. economy – and the specialized alloys, magnets and catalysts that enable them. These include batteries and electric motors, but also missile guidance systems, communications and even satellites.

Examples of rare earth elements, which are used in batteries. Peggy Greb/USDA
Because of this, the Department of Defense has been one of the strongest supporters for more resilient supply chains. In the last few years it has been proactive about strengthening domestic production, especially for rare earth elements. That includes new contracts with rare earth mining and production operations in California, Nebraska and Texas. The Defense Logistics Agency also has emergency stockpiles of 42 commodities with a market value of US$1.1 billion at six different locations across the U.S.

Now, with President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan promising an expansion of electric vehicles and renewable energy, “green” legislation becoming more likely and climate change becoming a priority, critical mineral supply chains are again in the spotlight.

US relies on imports for most critical minerals
The U.S. government lists 35 minerals as "critical" for their role in the economy, including for technology and defense. The nation is heavily reliant on imports for almost all of them.
Table of critical minerals, their primary uses, U.S. reliance on imports for each and import sources

Page 1 of 4
Critical mineralPrimary usesImport relianceKey sources
ArsenicLumber preservatives, pesticides and semiconductors100%
China, Morocco, Belgium
CesiumResearch and development100%
FluorsparManufacture of aluminum, gasoline and uranium fuel100%
Mexico, Vietnam, China, South Africa
GalliumIntegrated circuits and optical devices such as LEDs100%
China, UK, Germany
Graphite (natural)Lubricants, batteries and fuel cells100%
China, Mexico, Canada, India
IndiumLCD screens100%
China, Canada, South Korea
Gabon, South Africa, Australia, Georgia
NiobiumSteel alloys100%
Brazil, Canada, Germay, Russia
Rare earth elementsBatteries and electronics100%
China, Estonia, Japan, Malasia
Page 2 of 4
Critical mineralPrimary usesImport relianceKey sources
RubidiumResearch and development in electronics100%
ScandiumAlloys and fuel cells100%
Europe, China, Japan, Russia
StrontiumPyrotechnics and ceramic magnets100%
Mexico, Germany, China
TantalumElectronic components, mostly capacitors100%
China, Germany, Australia, Indonesia
VanadiumTitanium alloys96%
Brazil, South Africa, Australia, Canada
TelluriumSteelmaking and solar cells95%
Canada, China, Germany, Philippines
BismuthMedical and atomic research94%
China, North Korea, Mexico, Belgium
Canada, Belarus, Russia
Titanium mineral concentratesWhite pigment or metal alloys88%
South Africa, Australia, Madagascar, Mozambique
Page 3 of 4
Critical mineralPrimary usesImport relianceKey sources
UraniumNuclear fuel88%
Canada, Kazakhstan, Australia, Russia
AntimonyBatteries and flame retardants81%
China, Belgium, Thailand, India
Platinum metalsCatalytic agents79%
South Africa, Germany, Italy, Switzerland
CobaltRechargeable batteries and superalloys76%
Norway, Canada, Japan, Finland
RheniumLead-free gasoline and superalloys76%
Chile, Germany, Canada, Kazakhstan
Aluminum (bauxite)Almost all sectors of the economy75%
Jamaica, Guyana, Australia, Brazil
BariteCement and petroleum industries75%
China, India, Morroco, Mexico
ChromiumStainless steel and other alloys75%
South Africa, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Russia
TinProtective coatings and alloys for steel75%
Indonesia, Malaysia, Peru, Bolivia
Page 4 of 4
Critical mineralPrimary usesImport relianceKey sources
MagnesiumFurnace linings for manufacturing steel and ceramics50%
Canada, Israel, Mexico, Russia
GermaniumFiber optics and night vision applications50%
China, Belgium, Germany, Russia
Argentina, Chile, China, Russia
Titanium spongeMetal alloys50%
Japan, Kazakhstan, Ukraine
TungstenWear-resistant metals50%
China, Bolivia, Germany, Austria
ZirconiumHigh-temperature ceramics industries25%
South Africa, Senegal, Australia, Russia
BerylliumAlloying agent in aerospace and defense industries11%
U.S. is the leading producer
HeliumMRIs, as a lifting agent and in research0%
U.S. is a net exporter
HafniumNuclear control rods, alloys and high-temp ceramicsLimited information available
Data from 2020. USGS lists some minerals as greater or less than percentages shown, rather than by precise percentages, including bauxite as greater than 75%; germanium, lithium, titanium sponge and tungsten as greater than 50%; magnesium as less than 50%, and zirconium as less than 25%. Uranium data is from the EIA.
Table: The Conversation/CC-BY-ND Source: USGS Get the data

Getting serious about supply chains
The amounts of lithium, cobalt, graphene, indium and other critical minerals needed for low-carbon technologies alone are expected to increase anywhere from 100% to 1,000% by 2050.

These estimates are concerning on their own, but when combined with military needs, industrial needs and the decline of U.S. mining, it paints a troubling picture for U.S. supply shortages.

Countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, which made headlines in the past due to mineral sales that financed armed conflict, are not particularly appealing partners for U.S. companies. The DRC is responsible for producing more than 70% of the world’s cobalt, used in almost all rechargeable lithium ion batteries that power everything from cellphones and laptops to electric vehicles, and China has invested heavily in the region.


The largest sources of critical minerals used in the United States. Congressional Research Service

The ability of the United States to drive demand – but hesitation to get involved with “risky” nations or commit to domestic production – means the U.S. is reliant on countries that are more willing to accept those risks. China now controls 80% of the world’s lithium-ion battery material refining, 77% of the world’s battery cell capacity and 60% of the world’s battery component manufacturing.

How to strengthen critical supply chains
The U.S. can take several steps to avoid being left behind by shortages and to ensure a successful energy transition.

During the Trump administration, the U.S. launched a federal strategy to ensure reliable supplies of critical minerals, but that strategy was based in part on scaling back reviews of the projects’ environmental impact, and it didn’t have many actionable steps. The administration also started the Energy Resource Governance Initiative, focused on working with partner countries on improving the governance of mineral supply chains.

The U.S. has lots of room to improve its support for critical mineral markets and trade agreements. Biden’s 100-day review of the critical mineral supply chains is a good start.

Expanding recycling and reuse of critical minerals can also increase sustainability and make minerals more available for U.S. use. One way to encourage recycling programs is to shift responsibility from waste managers to major producers like Apple and Samsung.

International agreements can also be written in ways that require responsible mining. U.S. companies, similarly, can do more to ensure that they aren’t purchasing from unsustainable sources or supporting practices that encourage the abuse and exploitation of developing economies.

The U.S. can also expand its exploration for critical minerals. Rio Tinto recently announced plans for a new plant to recover tellurium, a critical mineral used in solar panels, from its copper refining operations in Utah. Lithium mining in the California desert has also started to attract investors, as have rare earth projects in Colorado and Nevada.

Discussions of clean energy technologies should also include industrial policy, such as how mines are permitted, funding for processing plants and advanced manufacturing research. How the U.S. shapes the path for critical minerals will have important consequences for everything from the environment to national security.