There’s been an uptick in interest from federal and state agencies in what are called “critical minerals.” We desperately need them for all sorts of applications. Yet our domestic stockpiles of these minerals are dwindling, discoverability and development of local sources is minimal, and we have a very high reliance on unreliable and often unstable foreign sources for many critical minerals.
Over 30 critical minerals have been identified by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), from aluminum to cobalt to fluorspar to lithium to platinum to rare earth elements (REEs) to tin to zirconium. While aluminum, for example, is quite common, many others are considered not only critical but in short supply—and also strategic. According to the USGS, tactical military gear such as battery packs, night-vision goggles, ammunition, communications gear, and global positioning systems (GPS) contain at least 20 metals on the critical list that are over 50% reliant on imports, many of which originate from China and Congo. An uninterrupted and reliable supply chain of these commodities is essential from a national security perspective.
“Going green” also relies on critical minerals. Electric and hybrid cars also require critical minerals for their batteries, bodies, catalytic converters, frames, motors, and various safety systems. Critical minerals are also essential for increased energy efficiency in the manufacturing of solar panels and wind turbines.
Other applications for critical minerals include electronics, fire retardants (as used in mattresses), steel making, high-temperature ceramics, plumbing, lead-free gas, superconducting magnets and other magnets, satellite solar cells, touch screens, rechargeable batteries, solder, glass making (including shatter-proof glass), heat-resistant jet turbine engine blades, telecommunications switching, drones, and backlighting on cell phone screens, to name a few. The list goes on, as many of our everyday necessities, such as the phone or computer you are reading this on, are indeed critical-mineral dependent.
In December 2017, a Presidential Executive Order called for increased exploration of domestic critical minerals. That lit the fuse, providing additional federal funds for the USGS to work with state geological surveys to initiate a concerted national mapping effort to identify regions with potential to yield the much-needed domestic supplies of critical minerals.
For Illinois, that meant recent efforts focused on regional imaging of the deep subsurface using airborne magnetic surveying and detailed “boots on the ground” mapping of southern Illinois, where the potential is high for critical mineral discoverability, as well as preliminary testing of samples as we investigate specific locations of various critical minerals. There is much still to discover, and considerable interest in searching within and below the large Illinois Basin that covers about 75% of the state.