Metal Tech News - January 1, 2024
From the energy transition driving enormous new demand for technology metals to advances in technologies that make the mining of those materials more efficient and sustainable, 2023 was a big year for tech metals and mining tech news.
Here are the 10 most popular Metal Tech News articles of 2023:
In a show of support for Canadian production of the minerals critical to clean energy technologies, Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a January 2023 visit to Vital Metals Ltd.'s rare earth processing facility in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
"The world wants clean technology, and Canada has the resources, the expertise, and the skilled workers to meet that demand," Trudeau said during his Jan. 16 stop in Saskatchewan. "By developing and processing our critical minerals here in Canada – the first step in the clean technology supply chain – we can create good middle-class jobs all while keeping our air clean for generations to come."
At the time, Vital's Nechalacho project in Northwest Territories was being championed as home to the first and only rare earth's mine in Canada, and the company's Saskatoon processing facility symbolized the second link in a rare earth supply chain completely independent of China.
By the time 2023 came to a close, however, Vital had scrapped the idea of processing rare earths in Saskatchewan, and sold roughly 10% of its stock and all the rare earths ore stockpiled in Northwest Territories to China-based Shenghe Resources Holding Co., Ltd.
See the No. 1 story below for more on the Vital-Shenghe agreement.
NASA kicked off 2023 with news that its Mars Curiosity rover had discovered opals in an ancient lakebed on the Red Planet.
While a pendant adorned with Martian opals would be out of this world, the true value of these extraterrestrial precious gems is in the water that could have supported past life and is fundamental to future colonization of Mars.
Opals are formed when silica is dissolved into water and then deposited into voids. As water evaporates out, silica-rich opals are formed.
Evidence suggests that the opal "halos" found by Curiosity were formed underground long after the surface was too cold and dry. This means that conditions conducive to microbial life may have extended for at least an extra 1 billion years under the Martian surface.
"This water-rich subsurface network was shielded from modern harsh surface conditions, allowing for a potentially habitable environment on Mars in a more recent era," the research team penned in a summary of their findings. "These light-toned features are also ideal for follow-up investigation or sample return as similar opal-rich deposits on Earth are known to preserve traces of microbial life."
The real gem for a future Mars settlement is the opals found in this area far from the ice-covered polar regions are made up of 3% to 6% water.
NASA researchers say, "the features themselves contain a considerable amount of readily released water, making them an ideal resource at the otherwise dry Martian equator."
While gem-hunting for tourmaline back here on Earth, Maine native Mary Freeman and her husband Gary discovered a formation of gigantic lithium-bearing spodumene crystals with an estimated value of $1.5 billion.
This discovery on the Freeman's property in western Maine, known as Plumbago North, appears to be the richest known hard rock lithium deposit in the world.
"This is going to be a very important source of lithium in the future," said William Simmons, a mineralogist at the University of New Orleans and co-author with Mr. Freeman of a paper on the discovery describing preliminary results from a sample of about 10 tons of ore which demonstrated a higher average lithium content than any of the top ten spodumene-producing deposits in the world.
Considering that the International Energy Agency estimates that the batteries powering electric vehicles and storing renewable energy will drive a more than tenfold increase in the demand for lithium by 2040, the giant Maine lithium discovery is fortuitous.
Despite the potential windfall that could come with owning one of the world's largest deposits of hardrock lithium, the Freemans have a rocky journey between their fortuitous discovery and commercial production.
With batteries powering EVs and storing energy from renewable sources such as wind and solar being a key to the transition to low-carbon energy and transportation, encouraging the development of lower-cost, more energy-dense, and safer electrical storage technologies was a top focus for the Biden administration during 2023.
To speed the commercialization of emerging battery technologies, the U.S. Department of Energy invested $11 million into solid-state batteries that have the potential to extend the range and reduce the fire risk of EVs, and $5 million into flow batteries that can serve as a buffer between intermittent renewable power sources and customer demand.
While these technologies offer the promise of superior performance in powering an envisioned clean energy future where EVs are charged with zero-carbon electricity, they each have technical and commercialization hurdles that must be overcome to fully realize their promised capabilities.
To help overcome these hurdles, the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy supported five projects focused on expediting the transition from innovation to commercialization.
"These selections will be crucial in the nation's efforts to decarbonize the grid, industry, and transportation, paving the way for a clean energy future benefiting all Americans," DOE wrote.
With the ability to manufacture precision components, parts, tools, and prototypes, when and where they are needed, metal 3D printing is emerging as a viable and sometimes preferred alternative to traditional manufacturing.
Based on feedback and input from manufacturers, which reported the process of acquiring traditionally manufactured parts has become increasingly difficult due to irregularities in the supply chain, the Missouri University of Science and Technology decided to ignore the chain altogether and purchased a large-format metal 3D printer from SPEE3D during 2023.
"For Missouri manufacturers to succeed on the global stage, additive manufacturing must become the new normal," said Richard Billo, director of the Center for Advanced Manufacturing at Missouri S&T's Kummer Institute.
The SPEE3D printer is part of a larger Missouri Protoplex, the headquarters for a planned state-wide ecosystem where experts, innovators, businesses, entrepreneurs, educators, and policymakers develop and adopt the technologies needed to create and sustain manufacturing jobs across the Show Me State.
"The Missouri Protoplex will provide the state-of-the-art facilities, expertise and technical knowledge, or 'tech-know,' to prepare our state's workforce for the future," said Missouri S&T Chancellor Mo Dehghani.
The global push to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 requires the mining industry to supply the world with enormous quantities of minerals and metals to build the EVs, solar panels, wind turbines, and supporting infrastructure for the energy transition. As it ramps up supplies of the materials critical to the energy transition, the mining sector is racing to lower its CO2 emissions in lockstep with global targets.
From electric trains to the next generation of zero-emissions mining trucks, Wabtec Corp. is among the equipment manufacturers committed to providing the electrification solutions that will allow the mining industry to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
"What we are working on today is making sure that all of our solutions are geared towards helping mines achieve this goal through electrification," said Wabtec Vice President of Technology Joy Mazumdar.
Wabtec's race to provide the mining sector with low-carbon transportation solutions is based on one primary premise – "there is no Plan(et) B!"
Wabtec says the answer to efficiently moving the requisite huge volumes of mined commodities the world needs for the energy transition is to create tech solutions that enable productivity, safety, and sustainability.
"It's a fresh blueprint for success: mine safer and smarter, tread lighter, and be future-ready," Wabtec penned in a release outlining its plan A.
Ensuring that the American mining sector tasked to ramp up supplies of minerals and metals for the energy transition is doing so in the most sustainable way possible is also a high priority of the Biden administration. As such, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded Missouri S&T nearly $1 million to better understand the effects of pollution and waste related to the mining of critical minerals in Missouri and Alaska.
"The United States is facing a critical minerals crisis, and Missouri S&T is uniquely positioned to help with this issue from multiple angles," said Guang Xu, a Missouri S&T associate professor of mining engineering and principal investigator of the project. "My team's work will focus on how the mining industry can use environmentally friendly methods for mining critical minerals."
The more than $850,000 awarded through EPA's Pollution Prevention (P2) grant is directed to providing mining professionals with technical assistance and training related to reducing or eliminating pollutants from entering waste streams or released into the environment prior to recycling, treatment, or disposal.
"We will teach and reinforce the best practices to prevent and monitor pollution caused from mine dust," said Xu. "There will also be a focus on how to treat the tailings left over from mining heavy metals that have chemicals that could potentially be health hazards."
From longer-range electric vehicle batteries to long-lasting solar panels that efficiently charge those EVs with sunshine, tellurium is quietly becoming one of the most important energy metals that most people have never heard of.
First Tellurium Corp., a mineral exploration company that is increasingly looking like a technologies firm, is positioning itself to be the go-to source for all things tellurium.
"We see unlimited opportunities for the growth and uses of tellurium," said First Tellurium President and CEO Tyrone Docherty. "
To unlock these opportunities, First Tellurium established a new company to research, develop, and commercialize the use of tellurium in thermoelectric generators, solid-state devices that transform heat into clean electricity.
"Thermoelectric applications, whereby heat is converted to electricity, represent the number two use of tellurium worldwide," said Docherty.
The number one use is cadmium-telluride solar panels, a photovoltaic technology being championed by U.S.-based First Solar, the world's largest manufacturer of CdTe solar panels.
First Tellurium is also exploring the potential of tellurium to enhance the lifespan, charging time, safety, and capacity of existing lithium battery technologies.
"It's possible that tellurium could have the largest single impact on future battery technology over any other critical mineral," said Docherty. "Its properties are unique, the demand is increasing, and America's mandate is to source tellurium at home and become less reliant on China is changing the landscape."
For most Americans, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security conjures up images of an intelligence agency borne from the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon that employs TSA airport screenings, border checkpoints, and internet monitoring to protect Americans from terrorist threats, both foreign and domestic.
While these measures are at the crux of DHS's mission, the agency founded to fight terrorism views mining and critical minerals as vital to America's economic and national security.
"The threat environment has warped, it has changed, it has evolved," Tim Moughon, director of the field intelligence directorate at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said during a Dec. 8 presentation at the American Exploration & Mining Association annual meeting in Reno, Nevada.
Instead of hijacking planes to inflict terror, adversaries are increasingly targeting economic sectors as a way to weaken the United States.
"Economic competitiveness is a national security issue," Moughon said. "The mining sector is critically important in this respect. Not only for the GDP output that the mining sector contributes, but even more importantly because of the key role it plays in providing those critical minerals, critical resources, for the defense industrial base, for the tech sector, and areas like that."
DHS believes it is absolutely vital that Washington decision-makers understand the threats to America's mining industry, which is why it is increasingly sharing and seeking information from the sector.
The Metal Tech News top ten articles of 2023 countdown begins with Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau making a January 2023 visit to Vital Metals' rare earth processing plant in Saskatchewan. Before the year ended, however, Vital's Saskatoon processing plant had been mothballed and the Australia-based company had turned to China-based Shenghe Resources for the funding needed to resume the production of rare earths in Canada.
In mid-December, Shenghe cut a deal to buy the stockpiles of high-grade rare earth ore mined at Nechalacho and originally destined for an REE supply chain with links in North America and Europe.
At the same time, the China-based rare earths company invested A$5.9 million (US$4 million) to acquire an initial 9.9% strategic position in Vital.
Shenghe has the option to increase its ownership of Vital to 18.2% by investing an additional A$8.9 million (US$5.6 million) in the stock of the Australian mining company.
This strategic position in Vital, along with the sale of rare earth stockpiles, has raised concerns in Yellowknife and Ottawa.
"Nechalacho was sold as a source of rare earths and critical minerals that would be controlled by allies," Kieron Testart, a newly elected member of the legislative assembly in Northwest Territories told Cabin Radio. "I was there with the late Chief Edward Sangris when that announcement was made publicly, with representatives from Australia, Norway and the United States all holding hands, showing that this was going to be a Western supply chain. Now, with China involved, that's clearly not the case anymore."