Scientists at the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory published research on how the supply chains of rare earth minerals respond to disruptions. This could include natural disasters, labor or trade disputes, construction delays – and pandemics.

The team found that mineral supply chain disruptions have long-range impacts that affect the costs and availability of electric vehicles.

Mineral supply chains

In November 2020, emerging technology market research firm IDTechEX wrote:

China accounts for the vast majority of rare-earth production worldwide and this has, in the past, led to huge price volatility. In 2011, after China restricted its exports of rare-earths, the price of neodymium and dysprosium rose by approximately 750% and 2,000%, respectively.

US president Joe Biden signed an executive order on February 24 to review supply chains for critical materials, including rare earth minerals – the group of 17 elements like neodymium, praseodymium, and dysprosium used in permanent magnets. Magnetic materials are key in the production of electric vehicles. More than 80% of electric cars sold globally utilized permanent magnet-based motors in 2019.

Biden’s executive order (non-consecutively) states:

The United States must ensure that production shortages, trade disruptions, natural disasters, and potential actions by foreign competitors and adversaries never leave the United States vulnerable again. 

The order directs an immediate 100-day review across federal agencies to address vulnerabilities in the supply chains of four key products. 

One of those key products is critical minerals:

Critical minerals are an essential part of defense, high-tech, and other products. From rare earths in our electric motors and generators to the carbon fiber used for airplanes — the United States needs to ensure we are not dependent upon foreign sources or single points of failure in times of national emergency. 

This is a prudent move as the US shifts rapidly to electric vehicles and clean energy. A mineral supply chain disruption could negatively impact the way the Colonial Pipeline hack disrupted gasoline supplies on the US East Coast.

What the scientists found

So the study scientists at the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory undertook, titled “Agent-based modeling of supply disruptions in the global rare earths market,” should prove to be useful as federal agencies examine vulnerabilities in supply chains. Here’s what they found:

In general, the analysis found that in the case of temporary scenarios — a one-year export stoppage and a two-year mine shutdown — price impacts tended to extend years beyond the disruption period. Effects on production, capacity, and demand also could potentially last longer. The model suggested some mines that started up outside of China in response to a disruption would not likely be able to keep operating after primary supplies recovered.

And here’s what the Argonne team is doing going forward:

The GCMat [an agent-based model] team is now working on changes to the model that will help align it with US goals to lower greenhouse gas emissions. They are enhancing representations of rare earth magnet markets for energy-efficient motors, including those used in wind turbines and electric vehicles. And new agent-based models of the lithium-ion battery supply chain will assess how shortages of global materials might affect the adoption of battery technologies important to electric vehicle markets.

So how can the US best provide sustainable and secure mineral supply chains to maintain its pursuit of clean energy and vehicle electrification? Expanding reuse and recycle of minerals by big corporations, international agreements for ethical mining, and US expansion of exploration would be a start.

What do you think could be done to secure mineral supply chains? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo: Ramin Khatibi/Unsplash

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