A recent article in Slate.com discusses the advent of a new “Critical Mineral Age,” in which materials like niobium and rare-earths reorient the geopolitical landscape, with new buyers like China and suppliers like Brazil taking the place of the now familiar characters from the 20th century global race for oil.
It’s an interesting idea and the history of the Age of Oil offers a few lessons. First of all, nations like Brazil may be poised to parlay reserves of niobium into big profits, but the track record for resource-rich nations is not great; one only need to consider the fate of nearby Venezuela. In regards to rare-earths, as it turns out, they are not so rare. Yes, China controls the lion’s share of these minerals necessary for cell phones, but this commanding share is the result of processing and refining capability, and not geography.
As students in the University of Florida’s innovative course on the Impact of Materials on Society all know, when materials with unique qualities and applications appear in the marketplace, we need to consider their wider social and political context. In this case, it might mean that Brazil should be careful about its early mover advantage in niobium, and that investing in the technology of rare-earths is preferable to snapping up mining facilities. However this story unfolds, it should be interesting.