EV fans may be frustrated with the US government’s lukewarm support for electrification, but at least it can be said that the administration understands the importance of establishing a domestic supply chain for batteries and critical minerals.
As Reuters reports, the DOE is channeling funds into R&D spanning the materials spectrum, from primary processing to recycling. The bipartisan infrastructure bill includes $6 billion for battery materials processing and manufacturing projects, and $140 million for a facility “to demonstrate the commercial feasibility of a full-scale integrated rare earth element extraction and separation facility and refinery.”
The US is almost totally reliant on imports of rare earth compounds, and 80% of shipments in 2020 came from China.
Nickel is one of the most strategic materials, and securing sufficient supplies promises to be tricky. In the Biden Administration’s 100-day supply chain review, a new US-based nickel refinery was at the top of the critical minerals wish list. “If there are opportunities for the US to target one part of the battery supply chain, this would likely be the most critical to provide short- and medium-term supply chain stability,” the report said.
The US has limited mining capacity and no processing capacity for nickel, and bringing new mines into production is stymied by the complexity of the permitting process. “The federal permitting process has been identified as an impediment to mineral production and the mineral security of the United States,” the infrastructure bill notes.
Extracting critical minerals from old tailings and waste dumps could be a partial solution, and would have the added benefit of cleaning up toxic waste that often seeps into local water supplies. The infrastructure bill directs the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to complete a comprehensive survey of national minerals resources within 10 years (!), “using a whole ore body approach rather than a single commodity approach, to emphasize all of the recoverable critical minerals in a given surface or subsurface deposit,” and also to “map and collect data for areas containing mine waste to increase understanding of above-ground critical mineral resources in previously disturbed areas.”
Meanwhile, the Australian state of Queensland is aggressively marketing its mineral resources to international investors.
Resources Minister Scott Stewart said experts from his department recently hosted an engagement session with the Confederation of Netherlands Industry and Employers to showcase Queensland’s minerals supply. Similar events have been held with government and industry groups in France and Germany, and another is planned to take place in London soon.
“Like many parts of the world, Europe is going through a large shift towards lowering emissions and clean energy,” said Mr. Stewart. “This is driving demand for minerals, such as those used in electric vehicles. Queensland has an abundance of these minerals, including copper, rare earth elements, cobalt, nickel, vanadium and more.”