In recent years, a new high-tech product that's ever more innovative and exciting than the last makes news every few weeks. But whether it's Google glasses, 3D printers, or flexible displays for electronics, the groundbreaking, in-demand technologies shaping our future have one thing in common — they're all dependent on minerals.
From the lithium in laptop and smartphone batteries, to the copper circuitry in satellites and the silicon in semiconductors, minerals are fundamental to America's most innovative industries, including the electronics supply chain.
In the 1980s, computer chips were made with 12 minerals. A decade later, 16 were used. Today, as many as 60 different minerals and their constituent elements are used in the production of this technology. Hi-def televisions require 35 different minerals, while smartphones are composed of as many as 42 different minerals, including aluminum, beryllium, gold, iron, and silver.
Given the importance of minerals to American technological progress, it may come as a shock to learn that despite $6.2 trillion worth of mineral resources within our borders, domestic tech manufacturers are increasingly threatened by an unstable minerals supply chain. This is due to the United States' duplicative permitting process and an outdated regulatory framework that can backlog mineral mining projects for years. It can take nearly a decade for companies to receive approval to mine for minerals in the United States — five times longer than it takes in countries such as Canada and Australia that have comparably stringent environmental safeguards.
As a result, the United States is unable to supply domestic companies with even half of their mineral needs, leaving them completely import reliant for 18 mineral commodities in a tight global supply market. This dependence on foreign countries — some of which are politically unstable — for minerals not only puts our supply chains at risk, but it also supports foreign jobs and economic growth at the cost of our own.
Industry leaders recognize lack of access to minerals as a problem. In a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers worldwide study, 78 percent of CEOs in the high-tech industry revealed that their businesses face minerals and metals scarcity.
Even the government has flagged supply concerns: the US Department of Energy developed a list of minerals vital to the advanced energy sector that could face shortages in the years ahead, and the Department of Defense issued a report to Congress earlier this year outlining several minerals at risk of shortfalls that are vital to optical equipment, navigation instruments, and other military technologies.
With a vast supply of untapped mineral resources within the United States, we have the potential to meet a substantial portion of manufacturers' needs while creating domestic mining jobs and boosting economic growth. But to do so, policymakers must take steps to streamline the permitting system. The US House of Representatives recently passed a bill — the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act of 2013 — that would do just that, while preserving strict environmental protections already in place. Now, the Senate must take action to see that the legislation advances and new supplies of key minerals are made available.
There's no doubt about it — our increased use and knowledge of minerals has led to the creation of extraordinary products. But to remain at the helm of global innovation and ensure prolonged success for the companies developing and manufacturing the technology of tomorrow, our nation needs a sound minerals strategy that promotes responsible domestic development.
What do you think? Share your thoughts on America's mining and minerals resources below.