The world is entering a cyclical phase in metals use where demand is expected to outstrip supply — especially in a handful of minerals deemed critical and strategic to U.S. military, energy and industrial use. Alaska, unique in the U.S. and in much of the world, is flush with most of these important resources, Dan McGroarty president of the American Resources Policy Network said.
“Alaska is the single most important state when measured across the full range of hard rock metals,” McGroarty said.
McGroarty will speak at the Alaska Strategic and Critical Minerals Summit in Fairbanks on Friday. McGroarty is the Senior Advisor to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce International Division and teaches at the Graduate School of Political Management at The George Washington University. He also served as special assistant to the U.S. President and as presidential appointee to two Secretaries of Defense.
The minerals summit is sponsored by the State of Alaska and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Several factors point to America’s need to find as many of the building blocks of high-tech devices domestically as possible, he said.
The global population is expected to plateau at 9 billion by mid-century. The minerals exploration and extraction industry still playing catch-up to the demand for new technological gadgets, renewable energy infrastructure and advanced weaponry that all require rare metals. McGroarty said Alaska is positioned to be an important player in the strategic and critical minerals market.
“When you look at Alaska, at what it currently produces and at past production, … there are easily three dozen metals worth exploring to see if Alaska can provide,” McGroarty said.
New extraction technology could allow economic mining of old and depleted mines, he said.
In Southeast Alaska, Ucore Minerals is developing the Dotson Ridge Rare Earth Element deposit at the historic uranium mine at Bokan Mountain on Prince of Wales Island, 40 miles southwest of Ketchikan.
Contrary to their name, the 17 rare earth elements are ubiquitous in Earth’s crust. However, locations where there are sufficient concentrations for economic extraction are harder to find. Ucore has reported that Bokan Mountain has economic concentrations of these metals, especially the more sought-after heavy rare earth elements such as dysprosium, terbium and yttrium — metals used in flat-screen televisions, high-tech weaponry, wind turbines and electric vehicles, among many other uses. Each industrial wind turbine uses around one ton of the rare earth neodymium in the magnets of its generator, McGroarty said.
Currently, China produces more than 90 percent of the world’s rare earth elements. China recently shut off shipments of rare earth metals to Japan for 40 days during a dispute between the two countries.
Not all rare metals are REEs. Manganese and Lithium are not rare earth, but are rare metals, McGroarty said. The U.S. imports all of its manganese and most of its lithium from foreign sources.
“We need both if we are going to any significant penetration of electric vehicles,” McGroarty said.
In a future that looks more toward battery-powered transportation, sourcing these metals domestically is as important as domestic oil for energy security issues, McGroarty said.
Alaska can also play a role in supplying critical and strategic metals that don’t fall in the rare earth element category.
What is a strategic or critical mineral?
A strategic mineral is used in advanced weapon system that does not have a second best metal to do the job — such as certain metals used in the making of smart bombs, McGroarty said.
Minerals are considered critical if there is a near-term, present or projected shortfall in the metal, McGroarty said. This can come from the geographic location of the mineral deposit or the fluctuations of the economy, he said. But minerals can become critical also if the U.S. is not comfortable sourcing, say, gold, tin or tungsten in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“If we shut those off successfully from our U.S. manufactures and users we may have created a critical metal out of tungsten,” McGroarty said.
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