The Central Processing of Critical Metals, an Idea Whose Time Has Come
If individual nations and politically aligned regions are to achieve self-sufficiency and security of supply, as soon as possible, for the critical metals necessary for their defense and consumer economies, then the most efficient use of time and money in pursuit of these objectives is of paramount importance and duplications of effort are to be avoided at all costs.
This means that the central processing of the beneficiated ores and scraps containing recoverable quantities of the desired critical metals is the best solution to avoid the paramount deficiency in the downstream processing of critical materials into customer-specified end-use forms; the lack of educated, experienced, and demonstrably skilled chemical and metallurgical engineers specialized in hydro-, pyro-, metallurgical, and manufacturing engineering, whose training and opportunities for experience in the West have been scaled down dramatically since the politicians in the West failed to adopt an industrial policy to maintain not only secure supplies of critical materials, but also of critical skills.
Dr. Chris Haase, the former Director of the Critical Materials Institute of the U.S. Department of Energy recently spoke with me about this topic, and he said that “the resulting [political] weakness of the US natural resources industry has caused a significant decline in the number of newly trained mining, metallurgical, and extractive metallurgical engineers in the US.” He added that “Recent data show that the United States graduates fewer than 207 hydrometallurgical engineers annually. Hydrometallurgy is a combination of multiple functional specialties that target the recovery of metals from their ores and scraps using fluid-based processes, by applying multiple processing steps involving physical, chemical, and sometimes electrical processes that include beneficiation, dissolution, and concentration that allows the separation, purification, and refining of finished metal and alloys. Achieving economically and environmentally sustainable operations requires a confluence of skills and expertise to deliver value at scale.”
“Unfortunately,” he added, “the closure and/or sales of major US mining corporations in the 1970s and 80s resulted in the closures of nearly all corporate mining and extractive research and development labs. The closure of the US Bureau of Mines in 1996 and the transfer of its accountabilities to the US Geological Survey and the US Environmental Protection Agency further bifurcated and balkanized US hydrometallurgical research, development, and advisory capabilities. The remaining US know-how and technical capabilities reside primarily in [just] a handful of select mining universities (e.g., Colorado School of Mines, New Mexico Institute of Mining & Technology, South Dakota School of Mines, University of Idaho School of Mines), US National labs (e.g., Oak Ridge National Labs, Idaho National Labs, Ames Lab), and largely retired, nationally recognized experts with industrial experience.
Because hydrometallurgical processing and technology are essential for the production of critical materials necessary to deliver a future clean energy transition and to support strategic (i.e., military and high technology) supply chains as well as the vastly larger consumer industries it is of vital national importance to preserve, advance, and champion the hydrometallurgical discipline, capabilities, know-how, and technology research and development necessary to support US competitiveness.” It is also extremely necessary to conserve these critical skills.
The best way to restore American self-sufficiency and security of supply of critical natural resources is to consolidate and thereby maximize the efficient use of America’s legacy skills in mineral resource exploration, processing, and the mass production of useful forms of the natural resources by minimizing government involvement where it, government, has the least skills. These areas include finance and non-health and safety regulations.
Left on its own, the American minerals industry maximizes the efficient use of capital, because capitalism is unforgiving of its inefficient use.
Left on their own the best managers in the natural resource industries have come to the conclusion the dwindling skill reserves of the American natural resource industry mandate the creation of central processing facilities where the large variety of ores, scraps, and residues for various non-fuel minerals of critical metals can be preprocessed to prepare feedstocks for further processing into useful forms by the most efficient technologies the cost and capacity of which is not prohibited by insufficient feedstocks. This is exactly what China is now doing in the rare earths’ space!
An American industrial policy would encourage the financing of centralized toll processing, minimize non health regulation and permitting, and otherwise get out of the way. Successful clean energy policies must be result-oriented, and reality-based, not just policy statements. The research and development of clean energy nonfuel minerals integrated processing technologies must be encouraged both at universities and at the industrial level. This is how the U.S. Defense Department procurement has always operated. The technological spinoffs of their work underpin today’s global consumer as well as defense technologies.
Only an industrial policy, the success of which is judged by performance to objective, not the enrichment of governing cronies, can save the USA from second class status in a world where nations with such policies are already succeeding beyond the dreams of the senescent “progressive” capitalism being preached in the United States.
During World War II, capitalism with American characteristics gave the world the richest, most powerful, most opportunity-laden for all, nation in mankind’s history.
It’s time to revive that spirit.
Jack Lifton is the Publisher and Editor in Chief for InvestorIntel.com, a capital market source celebrating its 21st year in business. He is also a ... <Read more about Jack Lifton>