Critical minerals is a term that is being heard more frequently in conversations at all levels about the future of technologies to sustain the modern world’s quality of life, address climate change, and the future of the planet.
What exactly are critical minerals, and why are they important?
When we have a vital need for a mineral element to keep things working, and there is an actual or foreseeable problem in obtaining that mineral, perhaps due to geological scarcity, geopolitical issues, trade policy, or other factors, then it’s called a critical mineral.
Interestingly, which minerals are critical can change over time. As an example, in World War II, asbestos was regarded as a critical mineral. While they’re not minerals, whale oil and goose feathers were also regarded as critical materials by the US military.
For the future, it’s crystal ball gazing. Perhaps copper will become a critical mineral as the world becomes increasingly electrified. But it really depends on what society needs at the time.
Today, the Australian government has designated 24 metals and non-metals* as critical minerals. The list includes cobalt, titanium, vanadium, graphite and lithium, but one of the most famous critical minerals is actually a group of elements called the lanthanides – the rare earth elements.
Despite the name, rare earths are not rare. These elements are in our oceans, in plants, in our soil, and in your body – indeed, there are tiny amounts in your bones. What is rare, is finding enough of these rare earth elements in a geological setting where they’re concentrated enough to be able to support a profitable mining operation.
To source this material, it’s preferable to source it from reliable countries like Australia where we have rare earth deposits, we have the know-how to mine safely, and we have laws to protect the environment and community.
Critical minerals are typically recovered as ‘by/co-products’ from the production of primary commodities. The Fingerboards mineral sands deposit can supply the highly valuable rare earths neodymium, praseodymium, dysprosium and terbium. It’s quite possible that in ten years’ time, your mobile phone, electric vehicle, self-cleaning oven, bank notes, refrigerator, the Star of the South wind farm, and the super conducting ceramics in the power lines supplying electricity to your homes, will contain critical minerals that may have been sourced from the Fingerboards mineral sands mine.
* The full list of critical minerals designated by the Australian government includes antimony, barite, beryllium, bismuth, cesium, chromium, cobalt, germanium, indium, lithium, manganese, niobium, platinum-group metals, potash, rare earth elements, rhenium, rubidium, scandium, strontium, tantalum, tellurium, rhenium, tungsten, vanadium. (Source: Geoscience Australia).