Can the World Run Out of Strategic Metals?

Electric and hybrid vehicles rely on lots of copper, and demand for copper and other metals is skyrocketing.
Marcia Wendorf

Strategic metals are those that are important to a nation's economy, national security, and green energy initiatives. In February 2018, the Secretary of the Interior presented a draft list of 35 minerals deemed critical to the U.S.

This list includes the following metals and semi-metals: aluminum (bauxite), antimony, arsenic, barite, beryllium, bismuth, cesium, chromium, cobalt, gallium, germanium, hafnium, indium, lithium, magnesium, manganese, niobium, platinum group metals, potassium, rhenium, rubidium, scandium, strontium, tantalum, tellurium, tin, titanium, tungsten, uranium, vanadium, and zirconium. 

iPhone Source: hocus-focus/iStockPhoto

Many of these metals were included on the first list of strategic metals created by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1973. Then, the metals were needed for petroleum refining, and the manufacture of glass, while today's list includes metals necessary for motors for electric vehicles, missile guidance systems, and satellites.

According to a recent PBS Newshour report, China currently controls 80 percent of the world's lithium-ion battery material, 77 percent of the world’s battery cell material, and 60 percent of the world’s battery components.

Jet engine
Jet engine Source: rankvandenBergh/iStockPhoto

 The U.S.' natural resource reserves

The U.S. maintains stockpiles of commodities it deems strategic, and the agency responsible for administering the U.S.'s natural resource reserves is the Defense National Stockpile Center (DNSC), which is a branch of the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency.

Based at Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, Virginia, the DNSC has facilities throughout the U.S., including giant storage tanks used to store the U.S.'s Strategic Petroleum Reserve. For years, the U.S. Interior Department has administered the National Helium Reserve.

Oil storage tanks
Oil storage tanks Source: CHUNYIP WONG/iStockPhoto

China releases metals

China also maintains national reserves and, according to a recent article on Reuters, on June 16, 2021, China announced a plan to release some of its reserves of the metals copper, aluminum, and zinc. China's purpose in doing this is to keep commodity prices in check.

China is the world's largest consumer of metals, and a release of some of its reserves could have a significant impact on global supply and demand. According to an article on Bloomberg, it is anticipated that China will release 150,000 tons of zinc, 200,000 tons of copper, and 500,000 tons of aluminum in several batches. The last time China sold some of its reserves was in 2010, and they included: Aluminum, zinc, lead, magnesium, steel products, rubber, and pulp.

The U.S. forms a mining consortium

According to another Reuters article from September 2019, in an effort to cut its reliance on China for metals, the U.S., formed a mining consortium of ten countries designed to discover and develop reserves of the metals. Besides the U.S., the other countries are: Australia, Botswana, Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Namibia, the Philippines and Zambia.

Administered by the Energy Resource Governance Initiative (ERGI), the U.S. will share its mining expertise with other consortium members as they search for lithium, copper, and cobalt. The U.S. will also work with the other countries to make their mining industries attractive to international investors.

China has the most natural resources

According to World Atlas, the countries having the most natural resources are:

  1. China - has natural resources estimated to be worth $23 trillion; its top resources are coal, rare earth metals, timber, antimony, gold, graphite, lead, molybdenum, phosphates, tin, tungsten, vanadium, and zinc. China is the world's second-largest producer of bauxite, cobalt, copper, manganese, and silver.
  2. Saudi Arabia - the country's estimated $34.4 trillion worth of natural resources are primarily oil. Saudi Arabia holds around 17 percent of the world's proven oil reserves, and it holds the world's fourth-largest reserves of natural gas. Saudi Arabia's other natural resources include copper, feldspar, phosphate, silver, sulfur, tungsten, and zinc.
  3. Canada - with an estimated $33.2 trillion worth of natural resources, Canada holds the third-largest oil deposits after Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. The country is also rich in gypsum, limestone, rock salt, potash, coal, and uranium. Canada's metals include copper, lead, nickel, zinc, gold, platinum, and silver. Canada is the world's top supplier of natural gas and phosphate, and it is the third-largest exporter of timber.
  4. India - India's mining and metal industry was worth more than $106.4 billion back in 2010, it has the fourth-largest coal reserves, as well as bauxite, chromite, diamonds, limestone, natural gas, petroleum, and titanium ore. India provides over 12 percent of the world's thorium, more than 60 percent of the world's mica, and it is the leading producer of manganese ore.
  5. Russia - their natural resources are worth $75 trillion, and it has the world's third largest mining industry, based on mineral production value. Russia is a top producer of aluminum, arsenic, cement, copper, magnesium, nitrogen, palladium, silicon, and vanadium. Russia is the world's second-largest exporter of rare earth minerals, behind only China.

Rounding out the top ten countries holding the largest number of natural resources are: Brazil, the U.S., Venezuela, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Australia.

Mining out of this world

As resources become depleted on Earth, the idea of mining asteroids becomes more and more lucrative. When Earth formed over 4 billion years ago, gravity pulled many elements away from the crust and down into the core, where they are unreachable. Then, asteroid impacts brought much needed metals, such as gold, cobalt, iron, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, osmium, palladium, platinum, rhenium, rhodium, ruthenium, and tungsten closer to the surface.

To date, three excursions to asteroids have been made: Hayabusa, developed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, landed on the asteroid Itokawa in November 2005. Hayabusa collected tiny grains of material, which were returned to Earth on June 13, 2010.

Hayabusa2 reached near-Earth asteroid 162173 Ryugu on June 27, 2018, where it remained for a year and a half taking samples. It returned those samples to Earth on December 5, 2020.

On September 8, 2016, NASA launched its OSIRIS-REx mission to the asteroid 101955 Bennu, which it reached in 2018. OSIRIS-REx successfully collected a sample, however, some of that sample escaped when a flap jammed open. NASA has determined that it retained enough material, and OSIRIS-REx is due back on Earth on September 24, 2023.

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