America’s Deep Reliance on Valuable Minerals
When considering the cherished symbols of commitment, such as marriage and engagement rings, most adults become intimately aware of the hefty price tags associated with diamonds, gold, and platinum. Yet, beyond these personal adornments lies a broader narrative: several U.S. agencies understand the indispensable role certain metals, including palladium, platinum, rhodium, and iridium, play in bolstering the nation’s economic trajectory.
Termed as platinum-group metals (PGMs), these elements underpin various pivotal industries within America. Notably, platinum and palladium are foundational to catalytic converters, which mitigate emissions from internal combustion engines. Concurrently, other metals within this group find themselves at the forefront of nascent technological innovations.
The U.S. Department of Energy explains that PGMs are vital for the evolution of natural gas fuel cells, grid energy storage fuel cells, and electric vehicles. Iridium, with its high melting point and resistance to intense heat crystallization, is instrumental in spark plug production and is carving a niche in the electronics domain. In parallel, the conductivity and anti-corrosion properties of rhodium are leveraged for optic fiber coatings, optic mirror production, and electrical material development.
Undoubtedly, these metals hold the keys to the American economic engine. However, their limited availability, coupled with the intricate dance of global economic dynamics, market desires, and geopolitical theatrics, often leads to substantial price oscillations. To illustrate, rhodium, more scarce than gold and primarily sourced from platinum, recently soared to nearly $30,000 per ounce, crowning it as the planet’s priciest metal.
As America’s dependency on these materials deepens, understanding the variables affecting their prices and advocating for their sustained availability becomes paramount.
The Department of Defense underscores the significance of certain resources, like PGMs. They’re indispensable to myriad military and civilian sectors but are domestically undersupplied, thereby making U.S. demands reliant on imports. Any major supply disruption could reverberate through the nation’s economy.
One potential ripple appeared in February 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine, triggering apprehensions regarding sanctions on the PGM market. Yet, the intricacies of Russia’s global supply chain and their paramount importance ensured Moscow remained unscathed, allowing the U.S. to continue its palladium imports.
While Russia is a formidable player in the PGM arena, South Africa claims dominance over platinum and iridium production – both pivotal for the burgeoning hydrogen economy. In 2021, platinum constituted almost half of South Africa’s exports to the U.S., and they were responsible for approximately 80% of global rhodium production. That same year, 31% of U.S. palladium imports originated from South Africa.
America does possess domestic PGM production capabilities, but they fall short of meeting its needs. Montana’s Stillwater and East Boulder mines yield significant palladium and platinum quantities, yet they don’t procure iridium, rendering the U.S. wholly dependent on foreign imports for this rare metal. Meanwhile, Canada stands as another major PGM producer.
Complicating matters, recurrent power outages in South Africa combined with other global influences endanger the mining sector. Sibanye Stillwater, the nation’s preeminent miner, contemplates shuttering unprofitable shafts, largely attributing this to China’s dwindling economic growth.
Such global vicissitudes spurred political initiatives addressing PGM security. In June 2022, the G7 inaugurated the Mineral Security Partnership (MSP) aimed at fostering the production, processing, and recycling of critical minerals, PGMs included. This collective endeavor seeks to guarantee the future stability and availability of these indispensable resources.
Promoting collaboration and inciting both public and private sector investments, the MSP, with its allies, convened during the London Metal Exchange Week in October. Representatives from a number of countries were present, with the U.S. playing a central role. Their shared ambition was to amplify collaboration, fortifying a resilient supply chain for critical minerals.
Echoing these sentiments, the forthcoming AGOA Forum in Johannesburg in November promises further discourse on this pivotal topic. Ebrahim Patel, South Africa’s Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition, is acutely aware of his nation’s pivotal role in furnishing the U.S. with essential minerals. Yet, he envisions a future where Africa not only exports raw materials but also fosters its processing capabilities, fostering a robust supply chain.
To safeguard a consistent PGM supply, the U.S. must cultivate robust ties with pivotal nations like South Africa. Key American institutions must prioritize this subject and perpetuate multilateral and bilateral collaborations. The U.S. and Canada, both significant PGM producers, harbor untapped prospects, warranting exploration to boost production and secure their supply chains.
Even amidst the turbulence sparked by Russia’s moves, the U.S. and its allies remain resolute in their mission: solidifying their critical mineral supply chains. As global cognizance about the importance of these minerals expands, it becomes essential to inculcate this discourse in national debates.
The MSP-led assembly symbolizes progressive strides towards forging a fortified supply chain for critical minerals. However, a continuous effort is required. Upcoming platforms like the AGOA Forum will offer a nexus for dialogue and consensus-building. It remains imperative for the U.S. and its partners to collectively work towards a stable supply of these essential minerals, underpinning the technologies of tomorrow.