The Elements of Innovation Discovered

Can US lead again in critical materials

Metal Tech News - May 29, 2024

It will take a village for America to lead again in critical materials.

While the patriotic rallying cry is clear, the critical thinking behind our country's commitment to critical materials is muddled. The U.S. is putting money where its mouth is – funding domestic critical minerals projects as well as imports from friendly nations – with the goal of reclaiming our leadership status from China.

Critical materials, the collective noun for critical minerals and metals, are essential for our country's clean energy transition.

On a nation-by-nation basis, countries define which materials are critical by factoring in the current and expected supply necessary for military manufacturing and consumer demands.

When a secure and sufficient supply is limited or impaired by geography or politics, the materials are deemed "critical."

The identification of critical materials is dependent upon geographical and global political events. For example, in the U.S., the critical materials required for World War II were iron in the form of steel, copper, aluminum, antimony, chromium, nickel, and tungsten.

At the end of the war, uranium, plutonium, and gallium were important enough to be deemed necessary but also rare and, therefore critical, but this was a government secret at that time.

While the United States has successfully defined its critical materials list, many other factors vital for regaining our critical materials' perch have fallen by the wayside, including domestic expertise and access to an experienced workforce. So is an understanding of the complex steps required to address the mining, refining and fabrication of critical materials. The multiple, varied steps of the supply chain for each material must be identified if a domestic supply is to be sourced or strengthened.

Looking back to understand America's future

Germany and Japan began World War II with deficits in copper, with Japan requiring iron ore and the alloying elements for steel, including chromium, nickel, and tungsten.

Oil had become, by the eve of World War II's mechanization of weaponry, the key deficit for Germany and Japan. The United States and the UK were mostly self-sufficient in all necessary materials needed for war.

Germany and Japan fought that war to establish secure supplies of critical materials to make them independent of any foreign control of their policies. Maintaining contrary domestic policies, democracy versus military dictatorship, were the sources of the war, not its driver.

Germany's super-weapons, meant to end the war in its favor, were defeated due to unavailability of necessary raw materials. America had no irresolvable deficits in necessary materials for any weapons program; the A-bomb program stands out as an example of this.

Why China's eating America's critical materials lunch

In modern times, America and Europe's consumer markets, military, and climate policy demands have driven China to maximize its supply of all raw materials required to manufacture modern consumer and military goods.

China has also progressed far down the total supply chain to manufacture end-user goods, the properties of which are enabled by critical materials.

Cheap labor was the original driver of the export of manufacturing and its associated technologies to Japan and, later, China from the West.

Japan was totally dependent on foreign sources for nearly all necessary metals and metalloids. Thus, for Japan then as now, all necessary industrial metals are critical and must be imported along with oil.

What are the necessary metals for China? It depends on its demand for consumer goods both for domestic and export use.

What are the critical policy goals for China? They are its technological predominance and, more importantly, technological independence from the West. This is codified in the current Chinese Five Year Plan, known as China 2025, the goal of which is not merely Chinese independence from the West but its predominance in ten selected technologies, including alternate energy production, chips, and EVs.

To achieve its goals, China has poured capital into STEM education, industrial R&D, and manufacturing facilities for modern technologies.

America's biggest deficits, if we are to "catch up," are not just the best immediate allocation of financial capital but also the long-term development of human capital and a renewed focus on STEM education.

America is original critical materials innovator

In the 1960s and '70s, America, not China, invented and rolled out the technologies that China now masters. We made the necessary metals critical by increasing their demand with the total cost of exploration, mining, refining, and fabricating less than its marketable selling price in a global supply chain!

Today, Chinese policy has shifted to MCGA, "Making China Great Again," and exposed the short-sighted folly of the domestic "no mining" and "no processing" policies of the West.

China will not give its customers an option of decoupling from Chinese export production and will not supply the raw materials or the processing to competitors.

The first steps in building a house are moving the earth, cutting trees to feed a sawmill, producing cement on site, and procuring bricks, glass, fasteners, plumbing, electrical fixtures and supplies.

Then, you must source bricklayers, cement workers, carpenters, electricians, and plumbers.

Of course, you did start with a blueprint, right? And you did get all the necessary permissions to use the site and connect to the common sewer and electrical distribution system.

Unfortunately, America's policymakers think that to build a house you just make a phone call to a builder.

America's most common shortfall is critical thinking, not materials.

Author Bio

Author photo

Jack Lifton, the co-chairman of the Critical Minerals Institute, began his career as a physical chemist specializing in the ultra-purification of rare metals and the preparation of their chemical compounds and alloys for use in the solid-state electronics and energy storage industries. He coined the now widely used term “technology metals” in 2007 to describe those metals whose electronic properties enable the miniaturization of electronic technologies.


Reader Comments(0)