Unreliable Mineral Supplies Impede US Innovation

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 This is due to the United States' duplicative permitting process and an outdated regulatory framework that can backlog mineral mining projects for years.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.

10 comments on “Unreliable Mineral Supplies Impede US Innovation

  1. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    November 22, 2013

    Thanks for these points…very interesting indeed. You make solid points. Minerals are globally souced–and somethign that manufacturers in the electronics industry think about increasingly. I'd be interested to know what are the most important legislative steps that need to be taken? What is holding that back?

    November 24, 2013

    China is investing heavily in the sub continent specifically to shore up future mineral flows.  We need to be careful not a create a monopoly that does not best serve the needs of the planet and the creatures that inhabit the planet. 

  3. ahdand
    November 25, 2013

    @flyingscot: True but whom do you suggest to compete with China on this matter ?    

  4. R.J.Matthews
    November 25, 2013

    The west can compete with China it just has to reverse some historic mistakes one being the imbalance between the time, money and political energy spent on the Middle East rather than Africa the other that a free unregulated market can solve all problems.

    Think we will see a shift anyway now that America is less dependent on Middle Eastern oil to what other resources are important. America can take the lead in helping clean up the mineral trade generally and this will help the countries where the mineral comes from improving conditions and increase the world wide supply of minerals leading to enough of a supply for everyone.

    The mining free market is working best at the moment for the Chinese who have the financial firepower to just go out a grab what they want. The mining sector does not work that well worldwide anyway and usually as it fluctuates between feast and famine with long lead times needed to get mines up and running with investors chasing what is ever the hot metal of the moment.

    It needs someone to sit down and work out what could be the mineral needs ten twenty thirty years down track like the Chinese are doing rather than just looking forward to the next election.

  5. Hal Quinn
    November 25, 2013

    The long lead times needed to get mines up and running are indeed a challenge faced by manufacturers that need to procure minerals in a timely manner — especially here in the U.S., where permitting can take nearly a decade. If the United States is to compete with other countries for mining investment dollars — and make minerals more accessible to domestic industries — we need policy change. The Senate must now take up legislation that would streamline the minerals mine permitting process. Some are under the wrong impression that a more streamlined process would compromise environmental standards, but that's absolutely not the case. The House-passed “National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act of 2013” would simply ensure coordination between the many government bodies tasked with permitting to bring efficiency to the process, all while maintaining existing  environmental protections. Australia and Canada have proven that prioritizing minerals development and safeguarding the environment can go hand-in-hand; it's time our leaders did the same. Visit to track the progress of minerals legislation in Congress. 

  6. SunitaT
    November 26, 2013

    Yes, some of the most mineral rich areas are politically unstable. That being said, it is also not in hiding that USA has been receiving minerals at a price lower than what the local markets would sell them for, leading to a global instability in the mineral market. However this mineral trade is going off road mainly because of corruption and guns trafficking. The local government also has to play a huge part. But this does not solve the mineral crisis most CEO's are facing for their companies. Giving mineral mining jobs locally can ease the process out a little bit and remove all the importation tax and at the same time have situations under control, both political, and economic.

  7. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    November 26, 2013

    @RJ Matthews, thanks for this thoughtful response. What do you see as the biggest challenges for the US to make this happen?

  8. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    November 26, 2013

    @Hal, thanks for the resources. It's like you were reading my mind with the concern about enviromental standards. I'm glad to know that it is being addressed. It would seem to me that teh advent of solid big data and analytics techhnologies would make this kind of coordinatoin much more reasonable and doable.

  9. R.J.Matthews
    November 27, 2013

    The biggest challenge is to get the mineral supply and the mining industry on peoples and politicians radar in the first place. Any hiccup in the Middle East and it immediately generates a lot of interest with people worrying that it might cost more to fill up at the pumps.

    Now America is increasingly self sufficient in oil and gas mind sets have to change to realizing that the mineral supply and the (countries and regions it comes from) is just as important as the oil supply used to be.

    The challenge with Americas mining industry is to to prove the can be environmentally sound and as  big a contributor to the bottom line as the Australian and Canadian mining industries.

  10. ChrisP
    December 12, 2013

    The problem is that the mining industry has lied so much in the past and continues to destroy the environment today that you have no credibility.

    Heavy metals continue to pour out of mines in Colorado.  The Cotter corporation refuses to clean up its radioactive uranium waste at its Canyon City plant.  There are countless other pollution problems.  The coal mines on the East Coast polute the ground with their retention ponds.

    If you actually behaved like a responsible business there might even be no need for rules at all.




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