State College, Pa. — During a hearing at Penn State University, members of the House Majority Policy Committee discussed competition and supply chain issues in the critical mineral and rare earth element markets.
Currently, the United States is almost completely reliant on imports for these materials, particularly from Russia and China.
According to Dr. Sarma Pisupati, director of Penn State’s Center for Critical Minerals, developing the mineral and rare earth industries would help with national security, create new jobs, minimize supply chain disruptions, and benefit environmental causes.
Critical minerals and rare earth elements are vital parts of modern technology such as computer chips, smart phones and touch screens, medical devices, defense systems, and alternative energy sources like windmills and solar panels.
“This is an exciting opportunity for the Commonwealth economically, but I believe we also have an obligation to pursue the development of this industry to free ourselves from reliance on countries like China and Russia to obtain these vital materials,” Causer said. “Supply chain issues related to the pandemic significantly impacted manufacturing of things like computers, smart phones, and even vehicles. A domestic source is vital to ensuring a reliable supply as well as our national security.”
Dr. Pisupati explained that the United States is completely reliant on imports for 30 of the 50 critical minerals and at least 50 percent import reliant for another 14 of the 50 elements.
“The United States has only 1% of the world’s reserves, whereas China has 37%. Russia is also a global mineral powerhouse,” Pisupati explained. “As a result of the war with Ukraine and ensuing sanctions on Russia, the critical mineral supply chain is affected even more. The only way to break this foreign reliance is to build a robust domestic supply chain.”
Penn State has been working to explore new sources of material including industry byproducts like coal mining waste; drainage from abandoned coal mines; refuse piles from coal-burning power plants; and fly ash from coal-burning plants.
During the hearing, Dr. Pisupati explained the development of a patent-pending process to more effectively and cleanly recover elements like cobalt and manganese from acid mine drainage. On an international scale, cobalt is usually mined in Congo, often using child labor and funding battles between the Tutsis and Hutus. Cobalt used in batteries in iPhones and many other devices is purchased from Congo DongFang – a Chinese middleman that sells Congolese cobalt.
If the Penn State method works and is widely implemented, future batteries may be built with domestically-supplied, ethically-sourced cobalt.
The university is also working with PennCara Energy to produce synthetic graphite from domestic coal.
Still, these measures may not be enough to completely free the United States from needing to rely on imported rare earth minerals. The collected minerals still need to be processed before use.
“Although China controls over 99% of the world’s production of heavy rare earth minerals and over 80% of the world’s production of light rare earth minerals, it also has a stranglehold over the processing of such minerals as they are transformed into the current metals that go into the final product,” explained Anothony Marchese, chairman of Texas Mineral Resources Group. “Even if, magically, the United States today could produce all the rare earth minerals it needs, downstream processing would need to be done overseas in Asia. Thus, solving the rare earth supply chain issue domestically requires us to address not only the production of such minerals, but the requirement to establish domestic downstream processing as well. The national security implications speak for themselves.”
The testifiers suggested establishing a pilot plant as proof of concept, which could cost anywhere from $25 million to $35 million. Ideally, the plant would attract capital investments.
Establishing a thriving critical mineral and rare earth elements industry in Pennsylvania would generate several direct jobs such as engineers, drillers and lab technicians, and indirect jobs like truck drivers, mechanics, welders, blasters, and others, according to Alan Larson of Larson Enterprises.
Larson believes that Pennsylvania can play a key role in establishing a domestic industry and reducing or eliminating the reliance on imports.
“There’s approximately 30,000 tons of rare earths used in this country on a yearly basis, so it’s going to take Pennsylvania and rest of nation to make this happen,” Larson said.
After the hearing, the Committee toured Penn State’s mineral processing facilities: the coal utilization center and critical minerals separation lab and the Millennium Science Complex microscopic facilities.
A video and written testimony from the hearing are available here.