How America Can Win the Critical Minerals Battle Against China
Despite repeated nefarious actions that violate both American and international norms of behavior, American supply chains are reliant upon China for critical goods and materials important to U.S. national security. This is true of everything from automotive parts and electronics to pharmaceuticals and medical products.
Another supply chain that is overly dependent on China is that of critical minerals, including the “rare earth elements (REEs).” Critical minerals and REEs are used in electronic products like smart phones, computer and TV screens, and LED lights. But they are also needed to build satellites and important defense systems like aircraft and guidance systems, refine crude oil, and generate power from renewable energy sources.
According to recent figures, the United States is import reliant on 31 of the 35 critical minerals, meaning imports are greater than half of annual consumption, and we rely on China for 80 percent of rare earth elements (REEs). What is more, there are 14 critical minerals that we do not produce domestically.
President Trump has taken strong steps to safeguard American supply chains through executive action on critical minerals, including REEs. The Department of Energy (DOE) is playing a leading role in the Trump Administration’s plan, entitled “A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals,” to reduce the United States’ dependency on China for critical minerals, including REEs.
Our plan is to combine innovation and a revived private sector to win the critical minerals battle against China. We will do it diversifying supply, developing substitutes, and driving recycling of critical minerals and rare earth elements.
The Department is researching ways diversify supply by identifying and extracting critical minerals and REEs from previously untapped sources, such as our vast coal reserves. We have already found recoverable coal reserves in the Appalachian and in western state basins that could produce a combined ten million metric tons of critical minerals. The catalyst for these discoveries was research done by our National Energy Technology Laboratory, which explores REE separation technologies.
At our Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a project currently under way that shows great promise uses a highly absorbent material to capture lithium – a key component in batteries – from the waste product generated by geothermal power production. This is a great example of the Department’s research approach, as we see a growing role for extracting critical minerals from unconventional resources, including mineral recovery from geothermal waste.
Developing substitutes is another key part of DOE’s research and innovation work on critical minerals. Ames Laboratory, another of our National Labs engaged in this work, is producing high-performance magnets used in renewable energy technologies and advanced motors with reduced REE content. Current experimentation suggests we can develop these magnets using an innovative new alloy of iron and nickel, both of which are abundant in the United States. If proven viable, this alloy could support an entirely domestic high-performance magnet manufacturing industry, securing an important defense industrial base supply chain.
The final plank of DOE’s research strategy is in recycling critical minerals and REEs. Until our country can start mining and refining more of these materials or develop commercially viable substitutes, we must recycle as much critical mineral and REE content as we can from existing products.
There are two promising developments on recycling out of our labs. The first involves using a high-speed shredder that turns old computer hard drives into scrap containing significant amounts of REE content. Our scientists apply an acid-free recycling process to the scrap that recovers REEs with greater than 99-percent purity, reducing the steps involved in the previous process and lowering recycling costs.
The second involves recovering nickel, cobalt, and manganese from disassembled electric vehicle battery packs. A recent American Manganese Inc. project, on which DOE partnered, generated recycled products with purities greater than 98-percent of the 3 critical minerals.
Developing substitutes and recycling is another area where DOE is working with the private sector to drive innovation. We just announced private-public funding opportunities that will pair research teams from industry with our critical materials experts at our National Labs with a focus on separation methods from industrial and end-of-life waste streams.
Innovation and a thriving private sector turned the United States from foreign energy dependent to the world leader in energy production. The Department of Energy is taking this same approach on critical minerals and rare earth elements to win this crucial supply chain battle against China. America has led on critical minerals before and we intend to again.
In several days America will celebrate her 244th birthday. A core belief at our founding was that we must be self-reliant as a Nation not just to survive, but to thrive. Our over-reliance on countries like China that are not reliable trading partners for critical supply chains threatens our economic and national security. We must reclaim our independence over critical mineral and rare earth element supplies to secure a prosperous future.
Dan Brouillette is the U.S. Secretary of Energy.