Pittsburgh — The US must prioritize investment in the domestic mining of technology metals such as copper and cobalt in order to protect its economy and become more self-sufficient, mining consultant Jack Lifton said June 5.
"We need to start producing it; we can't pretend anymore that there is not any here or that it is produced cheaper elsewhere," Lifton told investors during a virtual meeting hosted by Grid Metals. "It's time for technology metals that are critical to the grid to be produced in sufficient quantity in the US so that we don't have to worry about anybody else's influence."
Lifton said copper represented the key technology metal for energy production, storage, distribution and use.
"The US today imports one-third of our need for copper," Lifton said. "The US was always self-sufficient until sometime after the Chinese began consuming copper. Now we actually have to import copper even though we have excellent deposits in the US, and of course no new ones are being developed because of environmental resistance."
Lifton said the US was also heavily lacking in the production of cobalt and other technology metals critical for the electric vehicle industry.
"The US last year produced 500 mt of cobalt, which is enough to produce 50,000 electric cars," Lifton said. "Last year, the US sold 17 million cars and half a million electric cars. The raw materials came from everywhere else besides the US."
The US produces less than 1% of the world's cobalt supply and about only 5% of the world's copper supply, the consultant added.
DOMESTIC PGMs ALSO CRITICAL
Even without growing demand for electric vehicles, Lifton said traditional gasoline-powered vehicles would still require copper and other technology metals, such as platinum group metals (PGMs), which are not produced in significant quantity the US.
"Whether or not electric vehicles become predominant or even a significant portion of the market, the need for palladium, in particular, platinum and rhodium will never go away," he said. "All of these metals are in deficit. Palladium is produced in North America. The bulk of the world's palladium comes from Russia, some comes from South Africa and quite a bit from Canada."
Lifton said the US was the fourth largest producer of palladium, but the production was not enough "to take care of the cars that we know we are going to make."
Palladium, platinum and rhodium are essential for the manufacture of emission exhaust catalytic converters in modern internal combustion engines.
Lifton said the US should also look to ally nations such as Canada and Australia for the supply of PGMS and other technology metals, though global production of palladium and rhodium is still currently insufficient to meet demand in the automotive industry.
Grid Metals President Robin Dunbar said the deficit for such metals had encouraged leading South African PGM miners Sibanye Stillwater and Impala Platinum to acquire North American assets in recent years.
"Both of the South African companies have a lot of resources in South Africa, but the reason they came to Canada is because they like the political risk here," Dunbar said. "They like that the deposits here are palladium-dominant, they like the cost structure here and they believe that there is a very good medium- term price forecast here for palladium."