Biden Admin Announces Plan for Domestic Refining of Critical Tech Minerals To Reduce Dependence on China

By Nick Ciolino
Nick Ciolino
Nick Ciolino
Nick Ciolino covers the White House.
February 22, 2022Updated: February 23, 2022

The Biden administration has announced a domestic plan for processing and refining minerals that are critical to modern technologies. It comes as part of an effort to reduce the United States’ dependence on China, according to a White House release on Feb. 22.

The plan includes a $35 million award from the Department of Defense to MP Materials. Those funds will go toward upgrading the mining company’s California facility to separate and process rare earth minerals like cobalt and lithium. This comes with a pledge that the company will invest $700 million into the plan that will create 350 manufacturing jobs.

“China controls most of the global market of these minerals, and the fact that we can’t build a future that’s made in America if we ourselves are dependent on China for the materials that power the products of today and tomorrow,” President Joe Biden said at a virtual event Tuesday.

The announcement comes as part of Biden’s executive order on America’s Supply Chains signed a year ago.

Lithium is used in batteries that power cell phones, electric vehicles, and other electric devices. The element is mostly mined in Australia and South America and is almost exclusively refined in China.

Cobalt is another essential element in lithium batteries. It’s mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The cobalt mines there have come under international scrutiny for their use of child labor. Multiple lawsuits have been filed against big tech companies alleging the companies are “aiding and abetting the cruel and brutal use of young children” at the mines.

The administration’s new plan also includes the use of funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL). The Department of Energy is putting out Request for Information (RFI) on a facility that could extract valuable minerals from legacy wastes left behind by coal mining. That RFI comes with $140 million in support from the BIL for building and operating that facility. Another $3 billion from the bill will go toward grants for the refining of battery materials.

“Applying next-generation technology to convert legacy fossil fuel waste into a domestic source of critical minerals needed to strengthen our supply chains is a win-win—delivering a healthier environment and driving us forward to our clean energy goals,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm.

The Department of Interior also announced a working group meant to reform 150-year-old mine permitting and oversight laws.

The plan comes alongside private sector announcements.

The American multinational corporation Berkshire Hathaway Energy Renewables plans to break ground in the spring on a facility that will test the commercial viability of a lithium extraction process that the company says could produce 90,000 metric tons of lithium per year.

Nevada-based Redwood Materials is also planning a pilot program for collecting and recycling end-of-life lithium-ion batteries to extract lithium, cobalt, nickel, and graphite.