US critical mineral import reliance steady
USGS 2021 minerals report offers first look at global mining Metal Tech News – February 3, 2021
Last updated 2/4/2021 at 2:40pm
The United States depends on foreign countries for more than 50% of its supply of 28 out of the 35 minerals, metals and groups of elements deemed critical to the nation's economic wellbeing and national security, including 100% import-reliant for 14 of them, according to Mineral Commodity Summaries 2021, which was published by the U.S. Geological Survey on Feb. 1.
The list of critical mined commodities for which the U.S. is fully reliant on foreign nations for its supply includes natural graphite and manganese in the lithium-ion batteries used to power electric vehicles and store renewable energy, as well as the gallium, indium, niobium, rare earth elements and tantalum needed for a wide array of high-tech consumer electronics and military hardware.
In 2020, the USGS and its partners published a new tool for identifying which mineral commodities needed by America's manufacturing sector are most at risk to supply disruptions.
Evaluating the global supply of and U.S. demand for 52 mineral commodities over a decade beginning in 2007, the USGS methodology identified 23 mineral commodities, including cobalt, graphite, niobium, platinum group metals, many of the 17 rare earth elements, tantalum, and tungsten as posing the greatest supply risk for the U.S. manufacturing sector.
Out of the top 23 mineral commodities on the USGS risk assessment, six were rare earths – dysprosium (No. 1), yttrium (No. 2), neodymium (No. 3), lanthanum (No. 5), cerium (No. 6) and praseodymium (No. 12).
MP Materials' Mountain Pass Mine in California produced 38,000 metric tons of REE concentrates during 2020, a roughly 10,000 metric ton increase over 2019, making the U.S. second only to China for rare earth concentrate production. Though this seems to contradict the 100% reliance on imports for the 17 rare earths – 15 lanthanide elements, scandium, and yttrium – the concentrates at Mountain Pass are currently shipped to China to be separated into the individual rare earth elements. American manufacturers then buy rare earth metals, compounds, and value-added products from overseas.
From 2016 through 2019, roughly 80% of America's rare earth materials were acquired from China, 5% from Estonia, 4% from Japan, and 4% from Malaysia. The rare earths imported from Estonia, Japan and Malaysia were produced in either China or Australia.
The lithium-ion battery metals cobalt (No. 4) and graphite (No. 7) are the top two non-rare earths on the USGS list of mineral commodities at risk for supply disruptions.
Due to recycling and a small amount of domestic mine production, the U.S. produced about 24% of its cobalt needs during 2020, with the remaining 76% coming from other countries. Roughly 68% of the 140,000 metric tons of cobalt produced globally during 2020 was mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
When it comes to the natural graphite used as the anode material for lithium-ion batteries, the United States continues to be 100% import-reliant. China (33%), Mexico (23%), and Canada (17%) were the largest sources for the 41,000 metric tons of natural graphite imported during 2020.
China also processed most of the world's spherical graphite, which is the form used as anode material in lithium-ion batteries.
"A U.S. automaker continued building a large plant to manufacture lithium-ion electric vehicle batteries," USGS penned in the graphite section of its 2021 Mineral Commodities Summaries, referring to Tesla. "The completed portion of the plant was operational, and it produced battery cells, battery packs, drive units, and energy storage products. At full capacity, the plant was expected to require 35,200 tons per year of spherical graphite for use as anode material for lithium-ion batteries."
USGS' annual Mineral Commodity Summaries report is the earliest comprehensive source of 2020 mineral production data for the world. The 2021 report includes information on the domestic mining sector, government programs, tariffs, and five-year statistics on more than 88 mineral commodities that are important to the U.S. economy and national security.
"Decision-makers and leaders in both the private and public sectors rely on the crucial, unbiased statistics and data provided in the Mineral Commodity Summaries to make business decisions and determine national policy," said USGS National Minerals Information Center Director Steven Fortier. "Industries – such as steel, aerospace and electronics – that use nonfuel mineral materials created an estimated $3.03 trillion in value-added products in 2020, which represents a 3% decrease from that in 2019."
The US$1.4 billion drop in domestic mine production reflects this decrease in demand that was driven largely by the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the USGS report, U.S. mines produced US$82.3 billion of non-fuel minerals and metals during 2020.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the supply risk rank for praseodymium, which is ranked No. 12 on the USGS list of mineral commodities at risk for supply disruptions.