Critical commodities

The availability of metal, non-metal and mineral raw materials (commodities) is important for the on-going development of a wide range of industries globally, including those involved in high-technology goods manufacturing (Table 3.36). Several countries or groups of countries have developed 'risk lists' of commodities that are considered to be 'critical' including the European Union, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. The level of criticality of a commodity reflects the combination of risk of supply and the importance of the particular commodity from a mainly economic perspective. For example, highly critical commodities have both high risk of supply and high level of importance to a particular nation's economy. Supply risks are in turn influenced by factors including:

  • geological scarcity
  • the geopolitical stability of supplier countries
  • the level of concentration of resources, production and processing within particular countries or by individual companies
  • method of recovery (e.g., as a by-product of a major commodity)
  • trade policies.

Australia is a major exporter of mineral commodities yet is a relatively small consumer. Therefore the commodities that are critical for other countries are not critical, at present, for Australian industries, with a small number of possible exceptions relating to the agricultural sector (e.g., phosphate and potash).

The global demand for critical commodities (Figure 3.27) represents a potential opportunity for resource-rich Australia to contribute to meeting current and future growth in demand as well as adding diversity of supply.

To address this opportunity, Geoscience Australia has released a report on 'Critical commodities for a high-tech world: Australia's potential to supply global demand'1. The report examines Australia's known resources of critical commodities and potential for discovery of new resources.

The study assesses the level of opportunity for Australia's mineral exploration and mining industries for each of 34 commodities based on the level of criticality, Australia's resources and potential, global market size and growth outlook. The results are presented in terms of categories of resource potential, summarised below and in Figure 3.28.

Commodities assessed as having category one (high) resource potential in Australia are chromium, cobalt, copper, nickel, platinum-group elements (PGE), rare-earth elements (REE), and zirconium. Of these seven commodities, five are ranked in the group considered as most critical by the European Union, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States of America (i.e., excluding copper and zirconium which are of low and moderate criticality, respectively). 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 resource potential in Australia are (in alphabetical order): antimony, beryllium, bismuth, graphite, helium, indium, lithium, manganese, molybdenum, niobium, tantalum, thorium, tin, titanium, and tungsten. Of these 15 commodities, eight are considered to be of highest criticality by the European Union, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

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 the by-products of the 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 by-product critical commodities.

Table 3.36 Common uses of metals, non-metals and minerals in industrial and high-technology applications.
Driver of metal/material usage Technology/product Commodities used; bold indicates critical commodities
Bolded elements are detailed in Geoscience Australia's 2013 publication "Critical Commodities for a high-tech world: Australia's potential to supply global demand". Ag = silver; Al = aluminium; Be = beryllium; Ce = cerium; Co = cobalt; Cr = chromium; Cu = copper; Dy = dysprosium; Fe = iron; Ga = gallium; Ge = germanium; He = helium; In = indium; La = lanthanum; Li = lithium; Mg = magnesium; Mn = manganese; Mo = molybdenum; Nb = niobium; Nd = neodymium; Ni = nickel; Pd = palladium; PGE = platinum group elements; Pr = praseodymium; Pt = platinum; Re = rhenium; REE = rare earth elements; Sb = antimony; Sc = scandium; Se = selenium; Sm = samarium; Ta = tantalum; Te = tellurium; Th = thorium; Ti = titanium; U = uranium; V = vanadium; W = tungsten; Y = yttrium; Zr = zirconium.
Source: Geoscience Australia.
Industrial production efficiency and infrastructure development Steel Fe, Cr, V, Mo, Ni, Co, Mn
  Catalysts PGE (Pt, Pd)
  Ceramics Li, Ce
  Paint Ti, Cr
  Moulds Zr
  Flame retardant Sb
  Cryogenics He
Low-emissions energy production Wind turbines???permanent magnets REE (Nd, Dy, Sm, Pr)
  Photo-voltaics (PV) In, Sb, Ga, Te, Ag, Cu, Se
  Nuclear reactors U, Th, Zr
Low-emissions energy usage Electric cars-batteries REE (La, Ce, Nd, Pr), Li, Ni, Co, Mn, graphite
  Electric cars-magnets REE (Nd, Dy, Sm, Pr)
  Electric cars-fuel cells PGE, Sc
  Cars-light metals Al, Mg, Ti
  Cars-catalytic converters PGE
Communications and entertainment technologies Wires Cu
  Micro-capacitors-mobile phones etc Ta, Nb, Sb
  Flat screens-phosphors In, Y
  Fibre optics and infra-red Ge
  Semiconductors Ga
Defence / security Nuclear/radiation detectors He
  Armour and weapons Be, W, Cr, V
  Aerospace-superalloys Re, Nb, Ni, Mo
Transport-fuel efficiency & performance Light alloys Superalloys (high-temperature performance e.g. in jet engine turbines) High speed trains-magnets Al, Mg, Ti, Sc, Th Re, Nb, Ni, Mo Co, Sm
Water & food security Water desalination PGE, Cr, Ti
  Agricultural production-fertiliser Phosphate rock; potash, Mg

Figure 3.27 is a pie chart showing which countries are the leading importers of particular critical commodities.

Figure 3.27 Leading importers of critical commodities. As = arsenic; Ba = barium; Be = beryllium; Bi = bismuth; Cd = cadmium; C = carbon; Co = cobalt; Cr = chromium; Cu = copper; F = fluorine; Ga = gallium; Ge = germanium; He = helium; Hg = mercury; In = indium; Mg = magnesium; Mn = manganese; Mo = molybdenum; Nb = niobium; Ni = nickel; PGE = platinum group elements; Re = rhenium; REE = rare earth elements; Sb = antimony; Se = selenium; Sn = tin; Sr = strontium; Ta = tantalum; Te = tellurium; Th = thorium; Ti = titanium; U = uranium; V = vanadium; W = tungsten; Zr = zirconium.

Figure 3.28 is a diagram in table form ranking 42 elements from high criticality to low criticality. In addition, the elements are coloured red if they are 'Category 1', orange if they are 'Category 2', yellow if they are 'Category 3' or grey if they are 'Not Assessed' with categories determined according to each element's resource potential.

Figure 3.28 Geoscience Australia Critical Commodity Assessment. The level of criticality is based on stated priorities from the United Kingdom, the European Union, the United States of America, South Korea and Japan. It reflects the risk of supply and the economic importance of the commodity. Categorisation of resource potential reflects Australia's resources and, in particular, potential, market size and outlook for growth.


  1. Critical commodities for a high-tech world: Australia's potential to supply global demand: http://www.ga.gov.au/metadata-gateway/metadata/record/gcat_76526/