Why Copper is a Critical Mineral
Copper is critical for everything from the electrical grid to electric vehicles and renewable energy technologies.
But despite copper’s indispensable role in the modern economy, it is not on the U.S. Critical Minerals list.
This infographic from the Copper Development Association shows what makes copper critical, and why it should be an officially designated Critical Mineral.
Copper’s Role in the Economy
Besides clean energy technologies, several industries including construction, infrastructure, and defense use copper for its unique properties.
For example, copper is used in pipes and water service lines due to its resistance to corrosion and durable nature. As the Biden Administration plans to replace all of America’s lead water pipes, copper pipes are the best long-term solution.
Copper’s high electrical conductivity makes it the material of choice for electric wires and cables. Therefore, it is an important part of energy technologies like wind farms, solar panels, lithium-ion batteries, and the grid. The demand for copper from these technologies is projected to grow over the next decade:
|Energy Technology||Annual Copper Demand Growth (2021-2035P)||Use of Copper|
|Offshore wind||23.3%||Undersea cables, generators, transformers|
|Battery storage||21.8%||Transformers, wiring|
|Automotive*||14.0%||Batteries, motors, charging infrastructure|
|Solar PV||11.9%||Wiring, heat exchangers|
|Onshore wind||9.8%||Cabling, transformers, substations|
|Electrical transmission||7.2%||Transformers, cables, circuit breakers|
|Electrical distribution||2.7%||Transformers, cables, circuit breakers|
*excludes internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles.
Furthermore, policies like the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will bolster copper demand through energy and infrastructure investments.
Given its vital role in numerous technologies, why is copper not on the U.S. Critical Minerals list?
Copper and the Critical Minerals List
The USGS defines a Critical Mineral as having three components, and copper meets each one:
- It is essential to economic and national security.
- It plays a key role in energy technology, defense, consumer electronics, and other applications.
- Its supply chain is vulnerable to disruption.
In addition, copper ore grades are falling globally, from an average of 2% in 1900 to 1% in 2000 and a projected 0.5% in 2030, according to BloombergNEF. As grades continue falling, copper mining could become less economical in certain regions, posing a risk to future supply.
The current USGS list of Critical Minerals, which does not include copper, is based on supply risk scores that use data from 2015 to 2018. According to an analysis by the Copper Development Association using the USGS’ methodology, new data shows that copper meets the USGS’ supply risk score cutoff for inclusion on the Critical Minerals list.
Despite not being on the official list, copper is beyond critical. Its inclusion on the official Critical Minerals list will allow for streamlined regulations and faster development of new supply sources.
The Copper Development Association (CDA) brings the value of copper and its alloys to society, to address the challenges of today and tomorrow. Click here to learn more about why copper should be an official critical mineral.
The Critical Minerals to China, EU, and U.S. National Security
Ten materials, including cobalt, lithium, graphite, and rare earths, are deemed critical by all three.
The Critical Minerals to China, EU, and U.S. Security
Governments formulate lists of critical minerals according to their industrial requirements and strategic evaluations of supply risks.
Over the last decade, minerals like nickel, copper, and lithium have been on these lists and deemed essential for clean technologies like EV batteries and solar and wind power.
What are Critical Minerals?
There is no universally accepted definition of critical minerals. Countries and regions maintain lists that mirror current technology requirements and supply and demand dynamics, among other factors.
These lists are also constantly changing. For example, the EU’s first critical minerals list in 2011 featured only 14 raw materials. In contrast, the 2023 version identified 34 raw materials as critical.
One thing countries share, however, is the concern that a lack of minerals could slow down the energy transition.
With most countries committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the total mineral demand from clean energy technologies is expected to double by 2040.
U.S. and EU Seek to Reduce Import Reliance on Critical Minerals
Ten materials feature on critical material lists of both the U.S., the EU, and China, including cobalt, lithium, graphite, and rare earths.
|Mineral / Considered Critical||🇺🇸 U.S.||🇪🇺 EU||🇨🇳 China|
Despite having most of the same materials found in the U.S. or China’s list, the European list is the only one to include phosphate rock. The region has limited phosphate resources (only produced in Finland) and largely depends on imports of the material essential for manufacturing fertilizers.
Coking coal is also only on the EU list. The material is used in the manufacture of pig iron and steel. Production is currently dominated by China (58%), followed by Australia (17%), Russia (7%), and the U.S. (7%).
The U.S. has also sought to reduce its reliance on imports. Today, the country is 100% import-dependent on manganese and graphite and 76% on cobalt.
After decades of sourcing materials from other countries, the U.S. local production of raw materials has become extremely limited. For instance, there is only one operating nickel mine (primary) in the country, the Eagle Mine in Michigan. Likewise, the country only hosts one lithium source in Nevada, the Silver Peak Mine.
Despite being the world’s biggest carbon polluter, China is the largest producer of most of the world’s critical minerals for the green revolution.
China produces 60% of all rare earth elements used as components in high-technology devices, including smartphones and computers. The country also has a 13% share of the lithium production market. In addition, it refines around 35% of the world’s nickel, 58% of lithium, and 70% of cobalt.
Among some of the unique materials on China’s list is gold. Although gold is used on a smaller scale in technology, China has sought gold for economic and geopolitical factors, mainly to diversify its foreign exchange reserves, which rely heavily on the U.S. dollar.
Analysts estimate China has bought a record 400 tonnes of gold in recent years.
China has also slated uranium as a critical mineral. The Chinese government has stated it intends to become self-sufficient in nuclear power plant capacity and fuel production for those plants.
According to the World Nuclear Association, China aims to produce one-third of its uranium domestically.
Charted: America’s Import Reliance of Critical Minerals
The U.S. is heavily reliant on imports for many critical minerals. How import-dependent is the U.S. for each one, and on which country?
Charting America’s Import Reliance of Key Minerals
The push towards a more sustainable future requires various key minerals to build the infrastructure of the green economy. However, the U.S. is heavily reliant on nonfuel mineral imports causing potential vulnerabilities in the nation’s supply chains.
Specifically, the U.S. is 100% reliant on imports for at least 12 key minerals deemed critical by the government, with China being the primary import source for many of these along with many other critical minerals.
This graphic uses data from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to visualize America’s import dependence for 30 different key nonfuel minerals along with the nation that the U.S. primarily imports each mineral from.
U.S. Import Reliance, by Mineral
While the U.S. mines and processes a significant amount of minerals domestically, in 2022 imports still accounted for more than half of the country’s consumption of 51 nonfuel minerals. The USGS calculates a net import reliance as a percentage of apparent consumption, showing how much of U.S. demand for each mineral is met through imports.
Of the most important minerals deemed by the USGS, the U.S. was 95% or more reliant on imports for 13 different minerals, with China being the primary import source for more than half of these.
|Mineral||Net Import Reliance as Percentage of Consumption||Primary Import Source (2018-2021)|
|Graphite (natural)||100%||🇨🇳 China|
|Indium||100%||🇰🇷 Republic of Korea|
|Rare Earths (compounds and metals)||95%||🇨🇳 China|
|Titanium (metal)||95%||🇯🇵 Japan|
|Chromium||83%||🇿🇦 South Africa|
|Aluminum (bauxite)||75%||🇯🇲 Jamaica|
|Platinum||66%||🇿🇦 South Africa|
|Zirconium||50%||🇿🇦 South Africa|
These include rare earths (a group of 17 nearly indistinguishable heavy metals with similar properties) which are essential in technology, high-powered magnets, electronics, and industry, along with natural graphite which is found in lithium-ion batteries.
These are all on the U.S. government’s critical mineral list which has a total of 50 minerals, and the U.S. is 50% or more import reliant for 43 of these minerals.
Some other minerals on the official list which the U.S. is 100% reliant on imports for are arsenic, fluorspar, indium, manganese, niobium, and tantalum, which are used in a variety of applications like the production of alloys and semiconductors along with the manufacturing of electronic components like LCD screens and capacitors.
China’s Gallium and Germanium Restrictions
America’s dependence on imports for various minerals has resulted in a new challenge resulting from China’s announced export restrictions on gallium and germanium that took effect August 1st, 2023. The U.S. is 100% import dependent for gallium and 50% import dependent for germanium.
These restrictions are seen as a retaliation against U.S. and EU sanctions on China which have restricted the export of chips and chipmaking equipment.
Both gallium and germanium are used in the production of transistors and semiconductors along with solar panels and cells, and these export restrictions present an additional hurdle for critical U.S. supply chains of various technologies that include LED lights and fiber-optic systems used for high-speed data transmission.
The restrictions also affect the European Union, which imports 71% of its gallium and 45% of its germanium from China. It’s another stark reminder to the world of China’s dominance in the production and processing of many key minerals.
The announcement of these restrictions has only highlighted the importance for the U.S. and other nations to reduce import dependence and diversify supply chains of key minerals and technologies.
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