Critical Commodities

Critical commodities: metals, non-metals and minerals for a high-tech world

Overview

Solar farm site

A 2 MW solar array on the site of
former landfill at Fort Carson, USA.

Critical commodities are metals, non-metals and minerals that are considered vital for the economic well-being of the world’s major and emerging economies, yet whose supply may be at risk due to geological scarcity, geopolitical issues, trade policy or other factors. Among these important commodities are metals and semi-metals used in the manufacture of mobile phones, flat screen monitors, wind turbines, electric cars, solar panels, and many other high-tech applications.

The commodities ranked as most critical by the United States, Japan, Republic of Korea, and the European Union including the United Kingdom, are as follows (ranked by Geoscience Australia based on synthesis of individual country rankings):

Rare-earth elements (REE), gallium (Ga), indium (In), tungsten (W), platinum-group elements (PGE) including platinum (Pt) and palladium (Pd), cobalt (Co), niobium (Nb), magnesium (Mg), molybdenum (Mo), antimony (Sb), lithium (Li), vanadium (V), nickel (Ni), tantalum (Ta), tellurium (Te), chromium (Cr) and manganese (Mn).

Although these commodities are critical for the world’s major industrial economies, Australia’s perspective is different in that domestic demand for most major and minor mineral commodities is relatively small and is far outstripped by Australian production of those commodities. There are two notable exceptions, however. Phosphate and potash, used in fertilisers, are essential for Australia’s agricultural industries yet the nation is, at present, not self-sufficient in these commodities.

The Periodic table.

Periodic table of the elements
showing those of high criticality
and the status of Australia’s
resources of the elements in terms
of those with current production
and/or resources and/or
undergoing exploration.

Australia is well known as one of the world’s leading suppliers of iron ore, coal, gold, bauxite, copper, zinc, lead, manganese, and a number of other commodities. Australia also holds large resources, or has potential for significant resources, of many of the critical commodities. Australia therefore is well placed as a safe and reliable supplier of these commodities to world markets.

Geoscience Australia recently undertook a comprehensive assessment of Australia’s potential to supply critical commodities to global markets. This study by Geoscience Australia is described below. Other studies by Geoscience Australia on critical commodities, including rare-earth-elements, thorium and commodities related to salt lake systems (potash, uranium, lithium, boron), are available by following the links and downloading maps and reports.

The Mineral Systems of Australia section is also undertaking a study of Mineral systems related to mafic-ultramafic magmatism, including the critical commodities: PGE, Ni, Cr and V.

Geoscience Australia study of critical commodities

Critical commodities for a high-tech world: Australia’s potential to supply global demand (2013)

Front cover of Geoscience Australia's Critical Commodities publication.

Critical commodities report
by Geoscience Australia.

This report presents the first systematic and geoscientific evaluation of Australia’s range of critical commodities and of the nation’s opportunities to supply critical commodities to world markets. For each of 34 metals, non-metals and minerals the level of opportunity or ‘resource potential’ in Australia is assessed based on: (a) the level of criticality assigned by the United Kingdom, European Union, United States of America, Japan and Republic of Korea; (b) Australia’s known resources as well as potential for discovery of new resources; (c) demand in terms of global market size; and (d) growth outlook.

Part 1 of the report presents an overview of the definition and uses of critical commodities; a summary listing of the commodities considered to be critical by the European Union, Japan, South Korea, United Kingdom and United States of America; and an evaluation of the opportunities and resource potential of critical commodities in Australia.

Part 2 is a detailed technical description of the geological settings in which critical metals, non-metals and minerals occur, and their occurrence and known resources in Australia. This section is presented within a ‘mineral systems’ framework which groups particular mineral deposit types according to their broad geological settings and processes of formation. Importantly some inferences are also presented on the potential for undiscovered resources of many of the critical commodities in Australia.

The report also includes an extensive Appendix with summaries for each of the 34 commodities of their characteristics and uses; supply data with global and Australian resources and production; and global demand data based on country import values.

Table showing Australia’s resource potential.

Australia’s resource potential for
critical commodities (coloured
categories), and numerical ranking
of criticality (from report on Critical
commodities for a high-tech world,
Geoscience Australia, 2013).

The key results of the critical commodities assessment are as follows.

Commodities assessed with category one (high) resource potential in Australia are (in alphabetical order): chromium, cobalt, copper, nickel, platinum-group elements (PGE), rare-earth elements (REE), and zirconium. This assessment does not consider non-critical commodities such as ferrous metals, most base metals, and energy commodities. Australia has category one resource potential in many of these non-critical commodities.

Commodities assessed as having category two moderate to high resource potential in Australia are (in alphabetical order): antimony, beryllium, bismuth, graphite, helium, indium, lithium, manganese, molybdenum, niobium, tantalum, thorium, tin, titanium, and tungsten.

Some of the category one and category two metals and semi-metals (antimony, indium), as well as gallium, germanium, cadmium, tellurium and selenium, are primarily by-products of refining of the major commodities zinc, copper, lead, gold, aluminium and nickel. Australia’s high global ranking in resources of all of these major commodities implies that there is significant potential for new or increased production of the minor-element by-products listed above. Where recovery is currently uneconomic, opportunities may exist for improvements in mineral processing of ores to extract critical commodities as by-products.

A further conclusion of the study is that most of the critical commodities can be grouped into three families of mineral systems, as follows.

This photograph is part of the processing plant at the Olympic Dam deposit in South Australia. Although this mine currently only produces copper, gold and uranium, the ores and adjacent mineralised rocks are enriched in a large range of critical commodities, including, most importantly, rare-earth elements.

The Olympic Dam deposit in
South Australia is a multi-mineral
ore body that is mined for uranium,
copper, gold and silver, but also
contains significant amounts of
rare-earth elements and other
critical commodities.
Image: BHP Billiton.

Mineral system family (1): Mafic-ultramafic igneous-related nickel, PGE, chromium and cobalt – The occurrence of these commodities is closely related to mafic-ultramafic igneous rocks derived from the mantle. Based on known resources in Australia, the continent appears to be under-represented in world-class intrusion-hosted nickel, PGE and chromium deposits despite Australia’s favourable geology for such deposits.

Mineral system family (2): Felsic igneous-related REE, tungsten, niobium, tantalum, molybdenum, beryllium, tin and bismuth – All of these metals occur (albeit not exclusively) in association with felsic igneous intrusions, in particular with highly-fractionated granitic rocks and with alkaline igneous rocks. Australia’s potential for such deposits is unrealised at present.

Mineral system family (3): Heavy mineral sand-hosted zirconium, titanium, REE and thorium – New discoveries of heavy mineral sand provinces recently in Australia attest to the potential of the continent for further delineation of major resources of heavy mineral sands and their contained critical commodities.