Not many people think of the actual elements that need to be mined in order to live in the world today. Metals and minerals touch almost every aspect of our lives, from consumer products to construction, to transportation, and more. You can’t make rechargeable batteries without Cobalt, steel without Manganese, catalytic converters without Platinum, galvanized metals without Zinc, and life-saving medical imaging equipment without Gadolinium. The list can go on.
Minerals that serve an essential function in the manufacturing of a product, the absence of which would have significant consequences for the economy or national security are referred to as ‘critical minerals.’ The United States Geological Survey (USGS) notes that “The Energy Act of 2020 defines a ‘critical mineral’ as a non-fuel mineral or mineral material essential to the economic or national security of the U.S. and which has a supply chain vulnerable to disruption.”
The USGS has just released a new list of 50 mineral commodities critical to the U.S. economy and national security after an extensive multi-agency assessment. If you look at the list you will notice many of the minerals are needed for electrical components and semi-conductors, steel making, atomic research, batteries, fiber optics, fuel cells, aerospace and automotive alloys, magnets, and lasers – among other manufactured goods.
If you follow the critical minerals industry, you may have noticed that the original list of 35 commodities and groups named in 2018 has grown to 50 commodities today. According to the USGS report, the change resulted from splitting the rare earth elements and platinum group elements into individual entries rather than including them as mineral groups. In addition, the 2022 list of critical minerals adds nickel and zinc and removes helium, potash, rhenium, and strontium. (Read Can You Name All 17 Rare Earth Elements? if you want to know more about REEs.)
With this updated list, miners might think about updating the technology they need for rapid geochemical analysis that will enable them to increase exploration discovery success rates of critical and other minerals and metal elements – technology that can help them identify drill targets quickly, make on-site decisions about whether to stop or continue drilling, and decide where to focus on the grid.
XRF technology (also known as X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy) is a non-destructive analytical technique used to determine the elemental composition of materials. Portable X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyzers work by measuring the fluorescent (or secondary) X-rays emitted from a sample when excited by a primary X-ray source. Each of the elements present in a sample produces a set of characteristic fluorescent X-rays, or “unique fingerprints”. These “fingerprints” are distinct for each element, making handheld XRF analysis an excellent tool for quantitative and qualitative measurements.
These portable mining and exploration instruments can help make a critical difference in mining exploration and processing by providing rapid, on-site qualitative screening directly in-situ or lab-quality quantitative analysis on prepared samples. This helps to bypass the costly and time-consuming process of sending samples to off-site laboratories and waiting days, or even months, for essential data to guide drilling decisions, enable high-productivity operations, and gain a competitive advantage.
The USGS National Minerals Information Center director was quoted as saying: “Mineral criticality is not static, but changes over time.” So does technology.
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