Perspectives on “Innovation” for Recovery of Critical Minerals and Securing the Supply Chain

D.M. Wellman, S. Duyvesteyn
Rio Tinto,
United States

Keywords: critical minerals, innovation, research and development, supply chain, technology, system integration


For nearly two decades, it has been consistently noted that interruption of strategic and critical mineral supplies would cause a historic disruption to U.S. industry. The 4th industrial revolution is upon us, and climate change and global decarbonization goals by 2035 and 2050 are driving the supply-demand gap for critical minerals at unprecedented pace. Addressing a risk of this magnitude requires an all-of-the-above approach to establish diversified sources of new supply, innovate across the value chain, advance recycling, provide market transparency, enhance environmental, social and governance standards, and increase international collaboration across allies (IEA, 2022). Although the speed of technological innovation and advancement is faster than at any time in history, traditional processes and timelines for advancing concepts from ideas through isolated scaled testing—from bench to pilot to full-scale deployment or integration —are antiquated and inefficient. Additionally, many large-scale industrial innovations are not well suited for commercialization, making it difficult for industry to develop a value proposition for significant investment. To seize new opportunities and reshore the supply chain, we must challenge traditional views, training, and processes for how we innovate, integrate, and accelerate technological development and deployment in existing industrial systems. Additionally, this brings with it the imperative for us to question and re-envision how we view “innovation” to produce materials and products in a fraction of the time. Broadening our traditional perspectives on economic resource reserves, as well as the development and processes required to turn those resources into supply, highlights new limitations in the supply chain. This also reveals new opportunity beyond technological “innovation” to include innovation in people and systems, which combined, could create step-change advancements necessary to accelerate getting new critical mineral resources into the domestic supply chain. Through full-value mining design, we are changing the perspective on what was once viewed as waste or by-product streams to now becoming key national resources. Through partnerships between government, universities, and industrial partners, we can create ecosystems to reduce production risk and unlock new, socially responsible and economically viable gateways to critical minerals. And rather than viewing our industrial processes as “unique” and “requiring solutions unlike any other” we can look broadly across industrial sectors to what is common between us and identify readily transferrable technologies at scale to open new cross-sector opportunities accelerating technological “innovation”. What may be commonplace in one, may be new and game changing in another. We will present a perspective on “innovation” and potential opportunities and challenges to the current paradigm for how the U.S. can accelerate rebuilding the supply chain infrastructure to accelerate reshoring the critical mineral industry.