Strategic metals, also known as critical metals, technology metals, or minor metals, are elements that are necessary for technological and industrial processes, but are in short supply and have no known alternatives. Strategic metals can be found in most consumer electronics products, medical equipment, jet engines, semiconductors, LEDs, as alloying agents in numerous metal products, and many more applications.
China currently dominates global production of strategic metals and is the leading global producer of 28 of the 52 strategic metals referred to on the British Geological Survey risk list. In addition, China dominates Rare Earth production with over 95% of current global production (despite having less than 20% of global reserves).
In recent years, there has been a rapid growth in demand for many metals with some demand compounded by the political risks associated with the geographical concentration of their supply. This has led to concern in regions such as the EU and the US where many hi-tech metals users rely almost 100% on imports.
Definitions of what constitutes the “strategic metals” vary and sometimes overlap, often encompassing a variety of metals considered “critical” to the economy. The definitions of strategic and critical metals have evolved over time. By many standards, 69 elements are considered strategic or critical metals, which can be further divided as follows:
Defined as the 15 lanthanides plus scandium (Sc) and yttrium (Y), REEs are critical components in consumer electronics such as televisions, tablet computers, cameras, and mobile phones, rechargeable hybrid car batteries, wind turbines and other renewable energy technologies.
The PGEs consist of platinum, palladium (Pd), rhodium (Rh), iridium (Ir), osmium (Os), and ruthenium (Ru). They are essential components in industrial machinery, catalytic converters, and fuel cells.
Uranium (U), thorium (Th), and plutonium (Pu) are fission elements commonly used in the fuel and energy industries.
There are other critical metals, sometimes called “rare” metals that do not fall into one of the above categories.
Tungsten is known for its strength and high melting point. It is used in electrical, heating, and welding applications, aerospace and defense applications, and in light bulbs, heating elements, and rocket engine nozzles. Tungsten is also used in electrodes because of its conductive properties, and its strength makes it a common metal alloy.
Tantalum is also known for its strength and high melting point, as well as its ductility. As such, it is also a popular alloying element. Tantalum is used in electronic equipment such as mobile phones, video game systems, and computers, as well as surgical equipment and artificial joints. The metal is used to make capacitors for electronics, to fabricate chemical process equipment, nuclear reactors, aircraft, and missile parts.
Niobium is mined together with tantalum and mainly found in niobite (or columbite), columbite-tantalite (Coltan), pyrochlore , and euxenite. Niobium is present in alloys used to make jet engine components, rocket subassemblies, and combustion equipment, oil and gas pipelines, car and truck bodies, and railroad tracks. Superconductive magnets are made with this element.
Gallium (Ga) is known for its extremely low melting point—it can be liquid at near room temperature. It is used predominantly in semiconductor applications, including analog integrated circuits, laser diodes and light-emitting diodes, and solar panels.
Indium (In) is an electrically conductive element most commonly found in zinc ores. Its primary application is to form transparent electrodes from indium tin oxide (ITO) in semiconductors, LCD screens, photovoltaics, LED lights, lasers, and coatings.
Given the essential role of these materials in supporting a country’s infrastructure, economic development and national defense, demand for strategic metals is expected to increase, while supplies will only diminish. This is because strategic metals are sparsely distributed in the Earth’s crust and are usually mined as by-products of precious and base metals mining. Mining investments and operations are driven by the overarching goal of mining for major and precious metals, although dedicated strategic metals mining operations are increasing in response to the shortage.