What makes a mineral critical? Put simply, critical minerals help create the essential everyday items we all use. But these minerals may not be easy to get.
One of the reasons various minerals are becoming ‘critical’ is the growing demand for technologies we rely on in modern-day life. Things like electric vehicle batteries and solar cells. Fibre-optic cables and semiconductor chips. Even banknotes, stainless steel, and electronic appliances.
We are now using more minerals and in greater volumes. And this demand will increase even more over the next decades.
While demand is one part of what defines a critical mineral, the other is supply. Some minerals are abundant while still having reliable supply issues. Things like conflict and war, natural disasters, and pandemics affect supply chains.
Just think about the impact floods along east coast Australia had on the price of lettuce. Same demand but less supply.
The first critical minerals list
The United States (US) drew up the very first list of critical minerals due to the first World War.
During the war, tin, nickel, platinum, nitrates and potash were scarce on US soil. These minerals were important in military equipment and machinery manufacture, as well as fertilisers for agriculture and keeping the troops and those at home fed.
Within two years of the conflict beginning, these minerals were becoming difficult to obtain.
By 1917, the US Geological Survey had shifted its focus to prioritise the search for minerals needed for the war effort. From an initial list of five, the US critical minerals list in 2022 has grown to encompass 50 elements.
And here is an interesting point. Each country differs on which minerals or materials they consider critical. This difference is due to local uses in manufacturing and industry. Another consideration is the threats each country faces in ensuring its supply of these resources.
Australia's critical minerals list
In Australia, a critical mineral is a metallic or non-metallic element with two characteristics. Firstly, it is essential for our modern technologies, economies or national security. Secondly, there is a risk its supply chains could be disrupted.
Australia has designated 26 critical minerals. Some of the elements include lithium, cobalt, vanadium, titanium, graphite and rare earths. These key ingredients are essential for Australia to build clean energy infrastructure and technologies for aerospace and defence.
We have an abundance of many of these exports but we're not the only people who want them. The demand our allies have for our mineral exports heavily influences our critical minerals list.
The regard exists that Australia can offer a reliable supply of critical minerals. In 2021, our Critical Energy Minerals Roadmap outlined how Australia could become a global superpower in the supply of critical minerals.
Computer chips and solar panels
One recent addition to Australia’s critical minerals list is silicon.
Our green minerals technology research is led by Dr Chris Vernon. Chris explains how a product such as silicon can be classified as critical despite its abundance from silica sands.
"While silica (quartz and sand) is plentiful in Australia, it is the importance of the refined material that put it on the list. Silicon has been added because there is a global computer-chip shortage and that is largely due to supply chain issues," Chris says.
Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the US, and Europe are leading producers of computer chips. But they rely ultimately on a base material supplied by a handful of individual manufacturers in China.
"With the COVID pandemic, factories in China closed down. And they stopped producing as much of the silicon used to manufacture high-purity silicon wafers needed for semiconductors,” Chris says.
And microchips aren’t the only technology requiring high-purity silicon. Rooftop solar panels also use this silicone, and that demand is growing rapidly.
"While the world is not running out of silica (as sand and quartz), it is running out of processed silicon and, therefore, high-purity silicon. This is because it's not produced in enough places to keep the supply chain open and viable,” Chris says.
Most of our modern tech devices rely on computer chips. Many Australian households have rooftop solar. With silicon being the common ingredient between the two it becomes easy to see the criticality of this material.