STATE COLLEGE – Developing the critical mineral and rare earth element industry in the Commonwealth would boost national security, minimize supply chain disruptions, create jobs and clean up the environment, members of the House Majority Policy Committee, chaired by Rep. Martin Causer (R-Cameron/McKean/Potter), were told Tuesday during a hearing at Penn State University.
Critical minerals and rare earth elements are vital components of today’s technologies, including computer chips, smart phones and touch screens; medical devices and state-of-the-art defense systems; and alternative energy sources such as windmills and solar panels.
“This is an exciting opportunity for the Commonwealth economically, but I believe we also have an obligation to pursue the development of this industry to free ourselves from reliance on countries like China and Russia to obtain these vital materials,” Causer said. “Supply chain issues related to the pandemic significantly impacted manufacturing of things like computers, smart phones and even vehicles. A domestic source is vital to ensuring a reliable supply as well as our national security.”
The United States is 100% import reliant for 30 of the 50 critical minerals and at least 50% for another 14 of the 50 elements, said Dr. Sarma Pisupati, director of Penn State’s Center for Critical Minerals.
“The United States has only 1% of the world's reserves, whereas China has 37%. Russia is also a global mineral powerhouse,” Pisupati explained. “As a result of the war with Ukraine and ensuing sanctions on Russia, the critical mineral supply chain is affected even more. The only way to break this foreign reliance is to build a robust domestic supply chain.”
Because the U.S. primary ore reserves are only 1% of the world’s, Penn State has been working to explore secondary resources, including industry byproducts such as coal mining waste, drainage from abandoned coal mines, refuse piles and fly ash from coal-burning power plants. In his testimony, Pisupati outlined development of a patent-pending process to more effectively and cleanly recover elements like cobalt and manganese from acid mine drainage. The university is also working with PennCara Energy to produce synthetic graphite from domestic coal.
To truly gain independence from the nation’s reliance on other countries for rare earth minerals, the U.S. must go beyond just recovery and production of such minerals.
“Although China controls over 99% of the world’s production of heavy rare earth minerals and over 80% of the world’s production of light rare earth minerals, it also has a stranglehold over the processing of such minerals as they are transformed into the actual metals that go into the final product,” said Anothony Marchese, chairman of Texas Mineral Resources Group. “Even if, magically, the United States today could produce all the rare earth minerals it needs, downstream processing would need to be done overseas in Asia. Thus, solving the rare earth supply chain issue domestically requires us to address not only the production of such minerals but the requirement to establish domestic downstream processing as well.
“The national security implications speak for themselves,” he added.
The testifiers emphasized the need for establishing a pilot plant operating on an economic basis in order to attract larger amounts of capital. A pilot plant could cost anywhere from $25 million to $35 million.
In addition to the national security and environmental benefits, growing the critical mineral and rare earth elements industry would generate a variety of direct jobs, such as engineers, drillers and lab technicians, as well as indirect jobs for truck drivers, mechanics, welders, blasters and more, noted Alan Larson of Larson Enterprises.
He believes Pennsylvania can play a key role in the development of the industry and effort to gain independence from other countries. “There’s approximately 30,000 tons of rare earths used in this country on a yearly basis, so it’s going to take Pennsylvania and rest of nation to make this happen,” Larson said.
Following the hearing, lawmakers toured Penn State’s mineral processing facilities; coal utilization center and critical minerals separation lab; and Millennium Science Complex (MSC) microscopic facilities.
Video and written testimony from the hearing are available at PAGOPPolicy.com
Representative Martin T. Causer
House Majority Policy Committee Chairman
67th District, Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Media Contact: Patricia A. Hippler