Expert Report

Minerals, Critical Minerals, and the U.S. Economy (2008)

Topics:

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

Minerals are part of virtually every product we use. Common examples include copper used in electrical wiring and titanium used to make airplane frames and paint pigments. The Information Age has ushered in a number of new mineral uses in number of products including cell phones (e.g., tantalum) and liquid crystal displays (e.g., indium). For some minerals, such as the platinum group metals used to make cataytic converters in cars, there is no substitute. If the supply of any given mineral were to become restricted, consumers and sectors of the U.S. economy could be significantly affected. Risks to minerals supplies can include a sudden increase in demand or the possibility that natural ores can be exhausted or become too difficult to extract. Minerals are more vulnerable to supply restrictions if they come from a limited number of mines, mining companies, or nations. Baseline information on minerals is currently collected at the federal level, but no established methodology has existed to identify potentially critical minerals. This report develops such a methodology and suggests an enhanced federal initiative to collect and analyze the additional data needed to support this type of tool.

Key Messages

  • All minerals and mineral products could be or could become critical to some degree, depending on their importance and availability.
  • As an indicator of vulnerable supply, import dependence by itself is not a useful indicator of risk.
  • Decision makers in both the public and the private sectors need continuous, unbiased, and thorough mineral information provided through a federally funded system of information collection and dissemination.
  • From the federal perspective, a critical mineral is one that is both essential in use and subject to the risk of supply restriction.
  • In employing the methodology, it is important to distinguish among three time or adjustment periods: the short term, the medium term, and the long term.
  • In the short and medium terms, significant restrictions of mineral supply may be due to (1) significant increase in demand, (2) thin markets, (3) concentration of production, (4) production predominantly as a by-product, (5) lack of available old scrap for recycling or of the infrastructure required for recycling.
  • More complete information needs to be collected, and more research needs to be conducted, on the full mineral life cycle.
  • Of the 11 minerals or mineral families the committee examined, those that exhibit the highest degree of criticality at present are indium, manganese, niobium, PGMs, and REs.
  • Over the longer term, the availability of minerals and mineral products is largely a function of investment and the various factors that influence the level of investment and its geographic allocation and success. The long-term availability of minerals and mineral products also requires continued investment in mineral education and research.
  • The committee concludes that USGS Minerals Information Team activities are less robust than they might be, in part because it does not have the status or resources to function as a principal statistical agency.
  • The criticality matrix methodology is a useful conceptual framework for evaluating a mineral's criticality in a balanced manner in a variety of circumstances that will be useful for decision makers in the public and private sectors. A more nuanced and quantitative version of the matrix could be established and used as part of the federal program for collection, analysis, and dissemination of data on minerals.
  • The criticality of a specific mineral can and likely will change as production technologies evolve and new products are developed.
  • The effectiveness of a government agency or program is dependent on the agency's or program's autonomy, its level of resources, and its authority to enforce data collection. Federal information gathering for minerals at present does not have sufficient authority and autonomy to appropriately carry out its data collection, dissemination, and analysis.
  • The greater the difficulty, expense, or time it takes for material substitution to occur, the more critical a mineral is to a specific application or product or analogously, the greater is the impact of a mineral supply restriction.