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Friday 8 September 2023

Securing Critical Minerals: A Global Imperative

Faheem Sarwar. 

In today's rapidly evolving world, the demand for critical minerals is surging, driven by advancements in technology and the global push for a cleaner, more sustainable future. These minerals, vital for various industries, have become a focal point in discussions about national and energy security.

The Significance of Critical Minerals

Critical minerals are the backbone of modern life. They underpin national security, human security, and the booming electronics and renewable energy industries. Without these essential resources, vital technologies like missile systems, defense mechanisms, night vision goggles, nuclear power, solar panels, wind turbines, and even everyday gadgets like smartphones (yes, iPhones included) would cease to exist.

Defining Critical Minerals

Critical minerals are those resources that play a fundamental role in various industries, especially those related to national security, electronics, and energy. These minerals are often characterized by their scarcity, high economic value, and essential role in modern technology. The classification of critical minerals can vary, depending on the criteria used. In the United States, the U.S. Geological Survey designates minerals as "critical" based on their high import dependence and their economic and national security significance. While the list comprises around 50 minerals, some minerals are considered critical by one country but not by another. For instance, Canada may prioritize different minerals compared to the United States, highlighting the subjective nature of this classification.

The Chinese Dominance 

For decades, China has been strategically building its dominance in this sector, creating a formidable presence in the global market. Its control over the production and processing of critical minerals, such as rare earths, cobalt, gallium, and graphite, is viewed by the US with concerns about supply security and economic dependency.

The Urgent Need for Diversification

With China's stronghold over critical minerals, the US considers that there's an urgent need to diversify supply sources. This perception is driving the United States and other Western nations to explore alternatives and build robust, diversified supply chains.

The Africa Opportunity

Africa, with its abundant mineral resources, emerges as a key player in the quest for diversified supply sources. Countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia hold vast reserves of critical minerals, making them pivotal partners in this endeavor. There are several reasons why the U.S. can engage more deeply with African nations in securing critical minerals.

Africa's Mineral Wealth

Africa boasts substantial reserves of critical minerals. For instance, it holds over 80% of the world's manganese, a mineral essential for various industries. This strategic advantage positions Africa as an ideal partner in the quest for a stable mineral supply.

Economic Development and Job Creation

Africa is home to more than 590 million people without access to reliable energy sources. Investing in critical minerals in Africa can help electrify the continent, foster economic development, and create much-needed jobs. It's a win-win situation where African nations can harness their mineral wealth for domestic prosperity while contributing to global supply chains.

Reducing the Debt Crisis

Many African countries are grappling with debt crises, which have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Leveraging their mineral resources can help these nations alleviate their financial burdens. For example, Zambia aims to triple its copper production, a critical mineral, to improve its economic prospects and address its debt issues.

Competing with China

China's early entry into Africa and its commercial orientation have given it a significant head start. State-backed enterprises in China are known for their risk tolerance, allowing them to operate in challenging environments where Western firms may hesitate. To catch up, the U.S. and its allies will have to invest in Africa's mineral sector strategically.

Human Rights Concerns

As we work toward securing critical minerals, we must also address human rights concerns associated with mining. The history of mining in Africa has often been marred by exploitation and human rights violations. Establishing uniform human rights standards is crucial to ensure responsible and ethical mining practices.

AI Revolutionizing Mining

The integration of artificial intelligence (AI) in the mining industry is transforming how we explore, extract, and process critical minerals. AI-driven technologies can scan vast areas, identify ore deposits, and enhance the efficiency and safety of mining operations. For instance, California-based companies are using AI to reduce exploration costs and accelerate mine development.

The quest for critical minerals is more than just a national or economic imperative; it's a global responsibility. Diversifying supply sources, strengthening partnerships with African nations, and embracing innovative technologies like AI are steps in the right direction. By securing these essential resources, we not only bolster our national and energy security but also contribute to a more sustainable and interconnected world. It's a complex challenge, but with collaboration and innovation, we can navigate this critical path to a brighter future. Securing critical minerals is not merely about ensuring the prosperity of a single nation; it's about fostering a more secure and sustainable global ecosystem for generations to come.

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