What makes your smart phone smart? How do electric vehicles propel us down the highway? How does power from the sun and wind reach the light switch in our homes? Materials scientists know. So do the technologists that create the devices and apps we rely on.
The question is whether governments – and specifically, public officials who, for all their skillsets are neither scientists nor inventors – understand how modern technology works, and what materials our modern miracles are made of?
The answer to that question will tell us a lot about which countries will dominate the 21st century’s Technology Age. Whether the public realizes it or not, the world is in a tech metals race – far more complex than the 20th century competition for oil – which will determine the lives we live, the standard of living we enjoy. And the conflicts we fight.
We see the beginnings of this realization. Foreign dependency on rare earths and critical metals are at the top of the news these past few years, with a growing need to locate and mine these metals domestically. This is more than a matter of economics. As resource security becomes national security, too often, many of these critical metals are controlled by governments that are hostile to America and in a time of conflict would love to cripple the U.S. with shortages of material supplies.
The risk is real. Rare earths and critical metals are a necessity for high-speed computing, smart phones and smart missiles, electric vehicles — essentially every high-tech gadget invented today that will become a must-have tomorrow. A shortage of supply could easily shut down our infrastructure and communications networks.
Recycling critical minerals is not a total solution to rising demand, but it is a great start. Take the “electrification of everything,” beginning with electric vehicles, and every other application requiring a lithium-ion battery. My company holds patents for the recycling of cathode materials from spent first-generation lithium-ion batteries, with up to 100% recovery and full purity. However, while electric vehicles themselves are getting government support, incentives for recovering the materials that make them work are paltry. This is problematic, and not just on grounds of economic security: recycling spent battery materials also helps prevent toxins from being dumped into our landfills.
In order to secure a domestic supply of critical metals, governments need to look deeper and assist companies in advancing research and development that promotes the rapid commercialization of recycling projects in an environmentally responsible circular economy.
It’s no coincidence that international competitors are already taking these steps. Just consider the new recycling regulation announced last week by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology: the law governing end-of-life lithium-ion batteries sets recovery goals of 98% for Nickel, Cobalt and Manganese and 85% for Lithium. China’s move comes after the European Commission approved a US $3.5 Billion Investment for seven EV countries for research and innovation in EV Battery technologies.
How do the Chinese and European moves compare with actions taken by the U.S. and Canadian governments? In North America, there have been some promising initial steps – but not much more. In 2018, the U.S. Government published a critical minerals list, and last year designated rare earths for priority action under a decades-old U.S. defense law. Canada has drawn up its own critical minerals list, and both countries have promised cooperation on critical mineral development. But neither has recognized the breadth of the problem – or devoted the fiscal resources to accelerate innovative solutions.
There’s no need to imitate China or the European Union. The U.S. and Canada can take steps consistent with their own national interests and policy objectives. Given the defense need for lithium ion power sources, the U.S. could add lithium ion battery materials to the National Defense Stockpile, use existing authority to make “offtake contracts” for whoever can produce those materials – or ideally, take both steps simultaneously. Canada can leverage its deep experience in resource development by providing a significant increase in federal funding for demonstration and development work on the metals and minerals it has just identified as critical. Finally, both governments could move from general coordination on critical materials development to co-funded projects bringing U.S. and Canadian companies together to build the North American supply chains that will support 21st Century technology manufacturing — and all the jobs and GDP growth that come along with it.
The private sector is pressing hard for solutions that will both bring more critical resources out of the ground, and salvage more of those headed for trash dumps and land-fills. But if the U.S. and Canada are serious about competing with the rest of the world, it’s time to signal their seriousness with incentives that encourage innovation.
The great 21st Century tech war is happening. It’s time for the U.S. and Canada to join the fight.