Will Critical Minerals be a critical component of the future NL economy?

 Guest Post by Dr. Derek Wilton, PGeo.

Dr. Derek
Wilton, PGeo. is an Honorary Research Professor, Earth Science, Memorial University,
and Part-time Faculty Researcher College of the North Atlantic.

These are
certainly fraught times. As bluesman Jimmy Rogers sang at the start of the last
Cold War,  “World’s in a tangle”. Before
the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Covid-19 pandemic caused disastrous
effects to human health and the global economy. 

Aside from the ravages of the
illness itself, Covid exposed glaring weaknesses in global supply chains, not
only in finished goods, but also in primary mineral commodities. Before
Covid-19, and progressing unrelentingly through the pandemic, human-induced
climate change has been causing serious, cascading, calamities. And locally of
course, as this Blog has been delineating all too well, the provincial economy
is in a mess with little but dark clouds on the horizon.

Prior to
Covid-19, concern about the supply of natural resources and how that relates to
the economy, and ultimately national security, led major industrial nations to
designate some strategically important commodities as “Critical Minerals” (CM).
The designation as “minerals” is actually a marketing stratagem, as they are really
referring to chemical elements that comprise minerals. 

For example, copper is on the Canada CM list, but it is
actually produced from a wide variety of minerals including chalcopyrite (most
common in Canada), bornite, chalcocite, etc.  
Each country and the EU have defined their own list of CM’s; Canada and
Japan have 31, the US 50, Australia 17, and the EU 30. This reflects the
relative importance and availability of that commodity to a particular country.
For instance, the US CM list includes beryllium which Canada does not designate
as being that important to the Canadian economy. 

These nations are working
together to ensure some measure of supply security for all these CMs. Recent
events have given rise to even greater concerns about supply as Russia is the
world’s largest producer of palladium, second largest of cobalt and third
largest of nickel; all of which are key CMs.

Dr. Derek Wilton, PGeo. (Photo Credit: Gazette Memorial University)


The CMs
include odd-sounding commodities such as dysprosium, praseodymium, and thulium
(all Rare Earth Elements), germanium, gallium, and scandium; all elements that many
of us only remember from the Periodic Table in chem class. CM’s do not include
such stalwarts as iron and gold, as their supplies are deemed to be sufficient.

CMs may also
be the “bright light” at the end of our existential tunnel.  Due in part to concern about climate change,
there has been a revolution in the development of “green” technologies, mainly
dependent on CM, that may offer a pathway to a sustainable future. According to
Nadal Nassar, a world-leading CM expert with the United States Geological
Survey, CM can empower the development of “faster, lighter, smaller,
stronger, hotter, and better”
technologies. 
These new technologies will be paramount to a modern society’s success
and environmental survival.

In
contrast to classic mineral resources, such as iron, etc., CMs are vastly more
difficult to find, process, and produce. Many, in fact, were once considered
obscure curiosities, mainly derived, if at all, as by-products from the
production of other commodities. They are typically found in smaller deposits,
often with unique production requirements. Coupled with the difficulty in finding
new CM deposits, modern societies demand that any development must be
undertaken as efficiently and cleanly (low-carbon) with minimal environmental
impacts, zero (or as close as possible) waste, and as close to total recovery as
possible. “Life of Mine” from exploration to final reclamation must be planned
based on best environmental, legal, social, and business practices.

NL is in
a comparatively unique situation vis-à-vis CM in that its geological endowment
is rich in CM, it has a competent research and development sector anchored by
MUN and CNA, and it has strong environmental and worker protections (so-called
“ethical” environment).  NL has a
continental scale geology comprising the eastern edge of the Canadian Shield,
the northeastern terminus of the Appalachian Mountain Belt, and the offshore
sedimentary basins. 

Most of Canada’s 31 CM exist in some form in the province. Labrador
hosts significant REE resources at Port Hope Simpson (Search Minerals), Letitia
Lake, and Strange Lake; the latter two requiring significant research before
production can be considered (my group are still defining how the minerals
therein react to weathering, crushing, erosion, etc.). The Vale Voisey’s Bay
mine is a significant producer of nickel, copper, and cobalt. Lithium has
recently been discovered in SW Newfoundland (Benton Resources/Sokoman Minerals).

If NL
develops its CM resources intelligently, it can aid the move into a
carbon-neutral world with significant financial reward.
Development
of CM could be a foundation for innovation and economic diversification, the education
and training of Highly Qualified Personnel (HQP), and the development and
application of new technologies that would have global applications.

To take
advantage of its CM endowment, NL will need to foster collaboration and
engagement between its post-secondary institutions (MUN and CNA), both level of
governments, industry, and the general public. A
partnership
must be developed amongst all provincial stakeholders to develop a strategy for
the sustainable development of CM resources.  

This is no time for institutional and intellectual “silos”; the provincial
economy can’t afford them and time can’t be wasted on turf wars. We’re all in
this together, only we can make CM
a
critical component of the future NL economy.

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