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By A.J. Roan
Metal Tech News 

$30M for home supply of critical minerals

Department of Energy offers research award for substitution Metal Tech News – March 24, 2021


Last updated 7/10/2022 at 3:10pm

Critical Minerals Biden Administration Department of Energy Secretary

The world is at an inflection point in its transition toward a low-carbon green energy future; the enormous amount of minerals, metals and elements needed to get there, however, need to come from a secure and responsible supply.

The U.S. Department of Energy March 18 announced $30 million in funding to support scientific research of domestic supplies of the critical minerals and metals needed to produce clean energy technologies.

Under the Biden administration, and following an executive order signed in February requiring greater coordination among federal agencies on supply chain issues, the Department of Energy has prompted possible funding toward national laboratories, universities, industry, and nonprofit organizations to be awarded to find solutions to reduce the need of these valuable materials or to find substitutes.

The U.S. currently faces chronic shortages of domestic supplies for the required resources necessary for a green energy future envisioned by the Biden administration. While a drop in the bucket, the Department of Energy's funding is a good start to an ongoing issue – a reliance on imports.

"America is in a race against economic competitors like China to own the EV market –and the supply chains for critical materials like lithium and cobalt will determine whether we win or lose," said Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm. "If we want to achieve a 100% carbon-free economy by 2050, we have to create our own supply of these materials, including alternatives here at home in America. And we must scale up new American industries that will create millions of good-paying union jobs to do it."

Published October last year, the United States Geological Survey outlined its critical mineral supply chain risk methodology, a system for measuring the potential for supply chain disruption from events like the COVID-19 pandemic or even natural disasters.

This was following the 2018 list of 35 minerals, metals and groups of elements the USGS identified as critical to the United States, and considering rare earths and platinum groups as individual metals, that list becomes 52 elements, or 44% of the periodic table.

Presently, the U.S. relies on imports from nations such as China and the Democratic Republic of Congo for a large portion, if not most, of these materials. According to the DOE, imports account for 100% of the supply of 14 critical elements, with over 50% imported of another 17, meaning most of America's future economic stability and growth, is reliant on other countries.

"A robust supply of critical materials is vital to U.S. success in leading the development of technologies today and in the future, including clean energy and electric vehicle technologies," said Securing America's Future Energy (SAFE) Chairman and former Director of National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair (Ret.) "This funding is therefore a welcome and crucial early investment by the Biden Administration. The research this timely funding supports will underpin considerable economic and security benefits today and for years to come in creating a resilient domestic supply chain."

According to the DOE, the $30 million investment will bolster existing efforts to increase the availability of critical materials supported by several Department offices, including Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Fossil Energy, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy.

Specifically, the money will fund research into the fundamental properties of rare earth and platinum-group elements and the basic chemistry, materials sciences, and geosciences needed to discover substitutes.

The Office of Basic Energy Sciences, within the Department's Office of Science, will manage the investment, granting awards for both single investigators and larger teams. With a footnote stating – up to $10 million of the $30 million of the planned funding is contingent on congressional appropriations, meaning there is a possibility of Congress using $10 million for unspecified purposes.

The growth of the sectors with the technologies needed for a carbon-free economy, is far outstripping the long road to discovering workarounds instead of directly empowering the means with which these resources come from.

"America's mines and miners provide the materials that are the building blocks for nearly everything we rely upon, from essential medical devices, and anti-microbial hospital surfaces to fighter jets, essential telecommunications and smart phones," National Mining Association President and CEO Rich Nolan wrote in March last year. "Mining also provides the coal that it is the foundation for the nation's electricity grid, ensuring a reliable, balanced, affordable supply of power."

During a webinar hosted by Granholm, she noted the U.S. potential to produce many of the minerals and metals needed for the shift away from carbon-powered energy and transportation.

"Many parts of the country are sitting on top of the materials that we need to produce battery technologies," said the energy secretary.

She had even suggested coal miners – who have recently been affected by falling demand from the power-generation sector – could transition to digging for EV metals, "having (coal workers) mine for critical materials is a natural shift for them."

Jennifer Granholm COVID-19 USGS supply chain risk methodology

United States Geological Survey

Click on the photo for a complete infographic outlining USGS's critical mineral supply chain risk methodology.

Ultimately, the issues are known, and America is making the change, yet the country will not turn to green energy on a dime, it is a decades long project that has been forced upon the country due to the events of the pandemic and while it is a terrible disaster in its own right, this is perhaps the only silver lining people can take from it.

"Smart government action now to back the industry during this crisis will help keep the more than 1.5 million Americans supported by mining employed and lay the foundation for a mining renaissance that can ensure affordable and reliable power when we need it and help rebuild the infrastructure and manufacturing supply chains we know we will need," said Nolan. "Simply put, mining is more important to our energy and technology futures than ever before. Smart policy in the challenging days ahead will recognize it as such."

Although written at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, these words by the NMA CEO will hold true for as long as America is heavily reliant on others for the mined materials at the forefront of sustainable and clean technologies.


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