Last week, Mark Udall (D-CO) introduced bill S.383, titled "Critical Minerals and Materials Promotion Act of 2011." The legislation aims to secure a steady supply of critical elements for the United States. This proposal follows the release of a blunt report from the American Physical Society and the Materials Research Society urging the U.S. to do more to promote the adequate supply of critical minerals and materials.
These developments reflect a new elevated awareness of the importance of critical materials. Although they are essential in modern technology, the United States is highly dependent on imports. A group of scarce elements, known as rare earth elements (REEs), have received the most attentions since China alarmingly threatened to constrict its vast resources. The country currently controls about 95% of the world supply of REEs.
The heavy spotlight on REEs has led to several projects being developed to recover domestic REEs, in places such as California and Wyoming, where companies are beginning to see the uses — and the potential profits — of rare earths.
But the Senate bill also calls on the need for a steady supply of other critical materials that have not received has much public attention. These include elements such as Niobium.
"Niobium is integral to our steel, automobile, aeronautics industries," Peter Dickie points out. Dickie is the CEO of Quantum Rare Earth Developments (QREDF.PK), a company exploring what they believe is the largest quality potential Niobium source in the United States.
Niobium also has many military and defense applications. "You can’t build a jet engine without Niobium," Dickie adds.
For these reasons, the U.S. government considers Niobium a "strategic metal," meaning the material is essential and has few or no substitutes. Furthermore, it is classified as one of the most critical.
"The U.S. currently imports 100% of its Niobium," Dickie explains. On top of this, supply originates from only three mines in the world. Two are located in Brazil. The other is the Canadian Niobec Mine, owned by IAMGOLD (IAG).
This situation alarms scientists and lawmakers, as the supply of this critical material is dominated by so few players and is thus venerable to manipulation and price swings.
Dickie hopes to change all of this. On Tuesday, he took one step closer by releasing the results of a Niobium resampling program from the Quantum’s Elk Creek property, located in southeast Nebraska.
"The results are quite spectacular," notes Dickie. The samples suggest high grade Niobium lies under the surface of Elk Creek.
Molycorp (MCP) had tested the site back in the 1970’s and 1980’s, but dropped the project due to financial constraints. "These results correlate very well with Molycorp’s previous work," the CEO adds. The validation is a huge step to defining a mine-grade project.
These results will support a NI43-101, which will contain the full resource calculation. This report, likely to be released in the coming weeks, will demonstrate how much Niobium is located at Elk Creek based on drilling done to date.
If the resource calculation verifies Molycorp’s estimate of 39.4 million tons of .82 percent Niobium, Elk Creek has the potential to be the 2nd or 3rd highest grade Niobium deposit in the world, in addition to being one of the largest. "It should remove all doubt about the project," Dickie said of the forthcoming report. This is quite a stunning development, as Elk Creek lies in the epicenter of the world’s largest economy that currently imports all of its Niobium.
The high grade Niobium also makes the project a potentially lucrative one. The three major Niobium producers collectively rake in over a billion dollars in profit each year. IAMGOLD currently operates its Niobec mine at an attractive 40% operating margin, yet the grade of Niobium there is seemingly lower than the samples suggest Elk Creek may be.
Technology is vastly different than it was just a few decades ago. Elements that previously had few uses are now essential in many modern technological devices. The world is having a sudden epiphany about the fragile supply of these increasingly important materials.Perhaps Elk Creek is a piece of the puzzle in finally securing more reliable sources of critical elements for America.