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What Makes a Mineral “Critical”?

A systematic approach to screening minerals for potential criticality was developed by Federal agencies, as described in a National Science and Technology Council report.

Mineral resources are the raw materials that make possible many of the manufactured items that we use and rely on every day.  Some minerals are plentiful, common, and widely available, but supplies of others—particularly some key minerals that enable many components of modern technology, from aircraft to cell phones to solar cells—are more limited, concentrated, or uncertain. Concerns about U.S. access to adequate and affordable supplies of certain mineral resources essential to the Nation’s economy or security have prompted interest in detecting potential supply constraints before they occur. A new report from the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), an interagency body that coordinates assessments and science and technology activities across relevant Federal agencies, addresses this issue: Assessment of Critical Minerals: Screening Methodology and Initial Application.

There have been many reports on “critical minerals” over the past several decades, and many approaches to defining what minerals are “critical” in a given context. In general, though, there is agreement that a critical mineral has two characteristics: its supply chain is vulnerable to disruption; and it serves an essential function in the manufacture of a product whose absence would impact economic or national security. The new NSTC report focuses on a systematic methodology to screen for potential criticality by utilizing openly available and regularly-collected data reflecting supply risks, production growth, and market dynamics. It constitutes the first part of a two-stage process to determine which minerals should be considered critical, with the second stage involving in-depth analyses of the potentially critical minerals identified by the screening to assess the extent to which availability constraints would cause significant economic, social, or security consequences and to clarify the underlying factors driving indications of potential criticality.

Identifying and assessing critical minerals is one aspect of the interagency activity on this topic, but cooperation and coordination also extend to sharing research results; planning for and informing Federal investments and programs; facilitating the tracking of mineral imports, exports, and production; and informing trade discussions and negotiations. Understanding what it means for a mineral to be critical informs all of these other activities, and is the first step in determining how to reduce associated risks and enact appropriate and effective policies and strategies.

Altaf H. (Tof) Carim is Assistant Director for Research Infrastructure at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.