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Vol. 22, No. 53 Week of December 31, 2017
Providing coverage of Alaska and Northwest Canada's mineral industry

Mining News: Critical minerals order

Trump executive order calls for an American critical minerals strategy

Shane Lasley

Mining News

Following a U.S. Geological Survey report that identifies 23 minerals critical to the economic wellbeing and security of the United States, President Donald Trump issued an executive order calling on federal agencies to devise a strategy to ensure America has reliable supply of these critical minerals.

“It shall be the policy of the federal government to reduce the nation’s vulnerability to disruptions in the supply of critical minerals, which constitutes a strategic vulnerability for the security and prosperity of the United States,” reads the executive order signed by Trump on Dec. 20.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke welcomed the focus on domestically sourcing critical minerals and the added tasks the executive order puts on Interior agencies, such as the USGS.

“The nation was largely built on the products produced from its mineral deposits,” he said. “The future will also be built on a foundation of minerals, many of which will continue to be discovered and produced from across the country.”

Critical minerals defined

The terms critical minerals and strategic minerals were first used in the United States during World War I. Over the ensuing century, however, the definitions of these overlapping terms have been somewhat subjective and has been interpreted differently by various agencies and individuals depending on their individual priorities.

USGS now considers strategic minerals a subset of critical minerals and has established criteria to determine which minerals should be considered critical.

In an 862-page report, “Critical Mineral Resources of the United States – Economic and Environmental Geology and Prospects for Future Supply”, the federal geological department defines critical minerals as non-fuel minerals or mineral materials essential to the economic and national security of the United States; vulnerable to supply chain disruptions; and serve an essential function in the manufacturing of a product, the absence of which would have significant consequences for the U.S. economy or security.

With this definition, the USGS has identified 23 critical minerals – antimony, barite, beryllium, cobalt, fluorite or fluorspar, gallium, germanium, graphite, hafnium, indium, lithium, manganese, niobium, platinum group elements, rare earth elements, rhenium, selenium, tantalum, tellurium, tin, titanium, vanadium, and zirconium.

“For a number of these commodities – for example, graphite, manganese, niobium, and tantalum – the United States is currently wholly dependent on imports to meet its needs,” according to the USGS report.

Critical minerals strategy ordered

Trump’s critical minerals executive order instructs Secretary Zinke, in coordination with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, to identify and publish a list of critical minerals, and develop a strategy to reduce the United States’ import reliance for these increasingly important ingredients to modern personal and military devices.

Within six months of establishing the critical minerals lists Trump wants a report that includes:

• a strategy to reduce the Nation’s reliance on critical minerals;

• an assessment of progress toward developing critical minerals recycling and reprocessing technologies, and technological alternatives to critical minerals;

• options for accessing and developing critical minerals through investment and trade with our allies and partners;

• a plan to improve the topographic, geologic, and geophysical mapping of the United States and make the resulting data and metadata electronically accessible to support private sector mineral exploration of critical minerals; and

• recommendations to streamline permitting and review processes related to developing leases with the goal of enhancing the access, discovery, production and refining of critical minerals in the United States.

Zinke, who has worked on both ends of the critical minerals supply chain, welcomed the stance taken in the executive order.

“The fact that previous administrations allowed the United States to become reliant on foreign nations, including our competitors and adversaries, for minerals that are so strategically important to our security and economy is deeply troubling,” he said. “As both a former military commander and geologist, I know the very real national security risk of relying on foreign nations for what the military needs to keep our soldiers and our homeland safe."

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Alaska’s critical mineral potential

The Trump Administration’s focus on securing domestic sources of critical minerals could help re-invigorate mineral exploration and mine development in Alaska.

At least 15 of the 23 critical minerals identified by the U.S. Geological Survey – antimony, barite, beryllium, cobalt, fluorspar, gallium, germanium, graphite, indium, platinum group elements, rare earth elements, rhenium, tantalum, tellurium, tin and vanadium – are found across the Far North state.

Working alongside the Alaska Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys, USGS recently developed a geospatial tool that integrated and analyzed a massive load of geologic information and used this data to estimate the resource potential for six deposit types that host a large array of minerals, including most of those now deemed critical.

After crunching all the data, this tool turned up new and expanded areas of Alaska with the potential for these minerals that are vital to modern living but that the United States depends upon foreign countries for more than half of its supply.

“Some of the areas that showed high potential were already known, but many of these areas had not previously been recognized,” explained Sue Karl, an Alaska-based USGS research geologist and lead author of the study. “Areas identified by this method that have high resource potential based on limited data indicate both understudied and underexplored areas that are important targets for future data collection, research investigations and exploration.”

Critical minerals Alaska

The geospatial tool worked particularly well for identifying new areas of Alaska to explore for rare earth elements, or REEs, a group of 16 minerals that possess unique characteristics that make them important ingredients to many high-technology devises used by both civilians and the military.

While their high-tech applications make them vital to the wellbeing of the United States, the fact that more than 90 percent of these metals come from China elevates their status to critical.

Ucore Rare Metals’ Bokan Mountain project in Southeast Alaska has already been identified as one potential domestic source of rare earths and a swath of Southeast Alaska extending 200 miles northwest from Bokan is known to host additional REE prospects.

While Southeast Alaska is the best known REE hunting grounds in Alaska, USGS’ geospatial tool identified eight large swaths across the northern part of the state worth checking out.

The federal and state geological agencies found that, for the most part, specialized granites containing tin, indium, tungsten, titanium, tantalum and fluorspar can be found in the same regions of Alaska that are prospective for REEs.

Tin and indium are important ingredients for architectural glass, flat screens, solar cells, semiconductors, smartphones and superconductors.

Tungsten and titanium are primarily used for high-strength metal alloys.

Tantalum is an important ingredient for automotive electronics, mobile phones, computers, and high-performance glass lenses.

Fluorspar is used to make specialty glass, ceramics, and enamelware.

Beyond the REE prospective areas, USGS’ geospatial tool identified the Lost River-Kougarok region on the Seward Peninsula and a stretch of the central Brooks Range as other good places to look for the granites that host this group of critical minerals.

The geospatial tool also proved to be effective in turning up new areas of Alaska to explore for the elusive platinum group metals – platinum, palladium, rhodium, iridium and ruthenium.

The largest use for this suite of metals, especially palladium and platinum, is as a catalyst to help scrub harmful emissions from petroleum burning automobiles and petroleum refineries. These metals are also used in modern electronics, such as increasing storage on computer hard disks and as an alloy for restorative dentistry.

Platinum, palladium and rhodium are used as investments and are commonly minted into physical bars and coins.

The United States currently relies on foreign sources for about 90 percent of these critical metals.

Though an economic lode-source of PGMs has yet to be discovered in Alaska, about 650,000 ounces of these obscure metals have historically been mined from Salmon River placer deposits in the Goodnews Bay area. This region of Southwest Alaska continues to be an intriguing place to look for PGMs, according to USGS’ geospatial tool.

Other areas of the state, however, show higher potential. The best known of these is the Wrangellia terrane, a distinct belt of rocks along much of the southern slopes of the Alaska Range eastward through southern Yukon and into western British Columbia.

While intriguing signs of rich deposits of PGMs are found in the Alaska portion of the Wrangellia, such as the Man property about 165 miles southeast of Fairbanks, an economic deposit has yet to be identified here.

As part of its critical metals investigation, USGS also looked at carbonate-hosted copper deposits, which often also host the critical minerals cobalt, germanium and gallium.

Cobalt is an important ingredient of super-alloys used to make aircraft turbine engines. This application makes up nearly half of the United States’ consumption of this critical mineral.

Germanium and gallium have properties that make them important minerals in many modern applications including solar cells, infrared optics, LEDs, semiconductors and smartphones.

Bornite, a large and high-grade copper deposit that is part of Trilogy Metals’ Upper Kobuk Mineral Projects in Northwest Alaska, is one carbonate-hosted deposit with significant quantities of cobalt.

Interestingly, USGS’ geospatial tool found that almost the entire length of the Brooks Range, especially the underexplored northern slopes stretching the entire width of Alaska, is prospective for the style of copper deposits

Narrowing the search

Overall, the geospatial tool seems to have broadened Alaska’s critical mineral potential, while narrowing the search to the hottest areas across the 663,000-square-mile minerals-rich state.

“Using this process, we have identified the potential for critical minerals in new areas such as the northern Brooks Range, and have expanded the area with potential for resources around known mineralized areas like the Seward Peninsula and east-central Alaska,” the authors of the study wrote in a summary of their findings.

For explorers seeking critical minerals, the new and under-explored areas turned up by the geospatial tool may provide enough data to unearth new deposits in areas where no one has thought to look.

The full report – complete with source information, datasets and maps – can be found under the title “GIS-based identification of areas that have resource potential for critical minerals in six selected groups of deposit types in Alaska” in the publications section of USGS’ website.