Human history has been defined by our ability to obtain and use minerals, from the Stone Age, Copper Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age, to the Industrial Revolution (steel and coal) to the Jet Age (aluminum and titanium) and now the Information Age (silicon). This basic historical trend shows no sign of abating, as minerals remain as critical as ever to our evolving technological, economic, social and military environments, as reflected in mounting awareness of the importance of rare earths and lithium. And those aren’t the only minerals we need to be focused on.
McGroarty noted that while the U.S. currently lists 35 elements as critical minerals, the full list is more like 55, when rare earths and other compounds are included. Adding in the full lists of Japan and the EU, linchpins of the global economy, the number rises to 65 elements, close to two-thirds of all the elements in the periodic table.
In short, “Welcome to the Tech Metals Age – where we need a lot of different elements, and a lot of each of them.”
Given the importance of minerals in new and emerging technologies, collaboration between government and the private sector is crucial, but complicated, McGroarty noted: “Is there a way to align a private project to key public policy goals – in a way that advanced the interests of both? If it sounds simple, as many of you know — it’s anything but.”
With that in mind, we face a number of challenges, including educating policymakers (think: well-meaning members of congress who last saw the periodic table in college chemistry) and also adopting a new approach to the mineral production process.
On the latter note, many minerals now deemed critical used to be considered “byproducts” of mineral production focused on other elements. One example cited by McGroarty, the Roundtop mine in Texas, “has the full range of rare earths – but also lithium for EV batteries, uranium, beryllium, and gallium – for supercomputing chips.”
This means that the search for critical minerals also means prioritizing elements once considered basic: “Take copper, for instance, which isn’t even on the U.S. or Australian lists. It’s the gateway to tellurium, rhenium and sometimes cobalt and perhaps even the rare earths. If you need those, then copper too is critical.”
And no surprise, just as control of metal deposits like copper, tin and iron drove human history before, now critical minerals for technological applications will be strategic drivers: “The tech metal age is going to redefine geopolitics. We’ll see the emergence of a new group of countries, tech metal ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’ The good news is that Australia and the U.S. are among the ‘haves’ – because being among the ‘have-nots’ is not a happy place to be.”
Daniel McGroarty, TES GeoPolicy editor, served in senior positions in the White House and Department of Defense, and has testified in the U.S. Senate and House on critical minerals issues. McGroarty is principal of Washington, D.C.-based Carmot Strategic Group, and president of the American Resources Policy Network, a non-partisan virtual think tank dedicated to informing the public on the importance of developing U.S. metal and mineral resources. The views expressed here are his own.