• Developed nations need rare metals more than ever to power their electronics industries, according to our partner The Conversation.

  • As the current pandemic context has major consequences on the supply of these metals, various countries are implementing new strategies to secure them.

  • The analysis of this phenomenon was carried out by Justine Marty, doctoral student in Supply Chain Management, and Blandine Ageron, university professor (both at the University of Grenoble Alpes).

Since the end of 2019, the pandemic linked to the SARS-CoV-2 virus has called into question several fundamentals about our strategies and supply methods. Certain harmless and non-strategic products, such as masks or resuscitation beds, have turned into high-stakes products that have created significant tensions in supply chains. This situation shows on the one hand that a product, without issues at a given moment, can quickly become essential and therefore very critical, and on the other hand, that many countries have realized the consequences of their heavy dependence on certain countries, especially China.

Beyond the current health situation and medical products, questions arise more generally for all critical products, that is to say, necessary and essential for a country, in a context of economic dependence. With the ecological transition and the exponential growth of connected objects, developed countries have a greater need for rare metals than before to supply electronic industries, offering products such as smartphones, computers and even electric cars.

However, most developed countries do not have access to these rare metals and must therefore source them from other countries, especially China, which today is the major player.

These supplies raise geopolitical, ethical and environmental issues.

The pandemic context that we are currently experiencing has had significant consequences on these supplies and has pushed the different countries to design and implement different strategies to secure them as much as possible.

An open pit mine in Huangshi National Mining Park, Hubei Province, China © Chuyuss / Shutterstock (via The Conversation)

What are these metals?

Rare metals represent about forty elements of the periodic table. They are produced at low tonnages and are necessary for a large number of industries. Their rarity is not necessarily due to their low content in the earth's crust, but more to their complexity of extraction. Indeed, it is necessary to distinguish the reserves, which are really exploitable, and the resources, ie all the deposits containing the minerals sought in the earth's crust. Rare metals are generally present inside classic ores. Some of them come from zinc, copper or even nickel mines. We find among these metals, indium, gallium, cobalt.

Among these rare metals, the famous rare earths are distinguished. Some of them are highly sought after for their magnetic properties and are mainly produced and mined in China, which can generate geopolitical conflicts. Contrary to what their name suggests, rare earths are not that rare, but their contents in deposits are often very low and they are therefore difficult to mine.

The critical metals are thus named by reference to the situation which would be ours if they were to fail. They can be specific to each company, state or region. Among these critical metals, there are strategic metals that are critical for sectors with vital issues. The defense and energy industries thus use metals which are strategic because they are essential to their activity, for example uranium, in particular in France, which is a strategic metal for the nuclear industry.

Conflict minerals are metals, a part of which - a minority - comes from territories under tension.

We talk about 3TG (for Tantalum, Tungsten, Tin and gold) to which cobalt is often added.

They are qualified as “conflicts” because their exploitation can contribute to the financing of armed groups, or be based on child labor or forced labor in illegal artisanal mines.

Where are the rare earths in the periodic table of the elements?

© Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Each of these metals or minerals is at the heart of strong current issues for each major region, economy or country, as illustrated by the issues of rare earths in China, conflict metals in Europe and rare and strategic metals in the USA.

No tension for China

China, the world's leading producer, extractor and importer of rare earths, saw its production drop slightly at the start of the pandemic, due to the suspension of industrial activities at production sites, and the lack of labor due to quarantine and logistical issues.

Before this situation, China was using its rare earth processing units at less than 40% of their capacity, some of them having been closed in previous years due to strengthening of environmental controls.

Prices have not increased significantly and demand is still present.

United States' attempt at emancipation

The United States had already decided to emancipate itself from China for the production of their strategic metals.

The Covid-19 crisis has accelerated this strategy concerning the opening of mines and the creation of processing sites.

Under the Trump administration, this search for independence from China was a priority.

Since the arrival of Joe Biden, China has threatened even more to reduce its exports to the United States, to target and weaken the American military industry.

Round Top Mountain site, Texas, USA © Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

In response, major investments are being made, particularly at sites such as Round Top Mountain in Texas, which is said to house 16 of the 17 rare earth elements and 11 of the 35 critical metals such as uranium and lithium.

This mountain, known as the largest deposit of rare earths in the United States, could provide the latter with a supply of strategic metals for 130 years.

However, the commissioning of such a deposit requires nearly twenty years.

The Americans' strategy for these metals does not only concern extraction, they also rely heavily on research and development, in particular to find recycling methods or substitutions for strategic metals.

Metal traceability for Europe

In Europe, all States rely on the traceability of conflict minerals.

Since January 1, 2021, the European Union has imposed full traceability of these metals, just like the United States, which had implemented it in 2010 through the Dodd-Frank Act.

Our “Environment” file

At the heart of this strategy, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with the province of North Kivu, a border region between Rwanda and Uganda. Indeed, the DRC has been known for decades for the trafficking of metals involving issues of armed conflict. At the time, gold and diamonds were already in the spotlight, but now with the explosion of new technologies, it is metals such as tantalum or tungsten that are targeted. The new European law "foresees the obligation for European companies intervening in the supply chain to ensure that their imports of these minerals and metals come exclusively from responsible sources and do not result from conflicts".

If the SARS-CoV-2 virus was a catalyst for international tensions over certain critical and / or rare metals, the strategies of the great powers already differed before the crisis.

The explosion of new technologies will continue to generate increased needs and highlight the challenges of regionalization of supply chains.


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This analysis was written by Justine Marty, doctoral student in Supply Chain Management, and Blandine Ageron, university professor (both at the Université Grenoble Alpes), with the collaboration of Pablo Maniglier.

The original article was published on The Conversation website.

Declaration of interests

  • Justine Marty received funding: this work benefited from state aid managed by the National Research Agency under the Investments for the Future program with the reference ANR-15-IDEX-02

  • Blandine Ageron has received funding from the National Research Agency.

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