Timmins area poised to benefit from global demand for critical minerals

·3 min read

The global demand for critical minerals and rare earth elements will continue to rise and Northeastern Ontario has potential to become a key player in the sector.

In the latest in a series of The State of Mining presentations hosted by the Timmins Chamber, Zeinab Azadbakht, regional resident geologist with the Ontario Geological Survey, discussed in great detail exactly what critical minerals and rare earth elements are, and how they will have a major impact in the local, provincial, and national economies in the coming years.

Azadbakht has been working out of the OGS Timmins office since August 2020, and covers both the Timmins and Sault Ste. Marie districts.

The presentation took place over social conferencing app Zoom, and Azadbakht explained that the term “critical minerals” was first used in a 2008 National Research Council report, which focused on individual chemical elements.

One of the biggest takeaways from the report was the reality that supply disruptions can occur for almost any commodity based on political, economic, geographic, geological or environmental factors.

The report led various jurisdictions around the world to start evaluating how critical certain elements are in relation to their local and regional interests. Lists were made outlining exactly which elements and minerals were locally essential, as there is no true universal definition of critical minerals. What might be critical in one nation, might not be in another.

Generally speaking, the term applies to minerals that have specific industrial, technological and strategic applications for which there are very few viable substitutions. These minerals can also be considered higher risk for supply disruptions due market demand and geopolitical considerations.

Updated in March, Canada has a list of 31 elements and minerals deemed critical including aluminum, copper, graphite, lithium, nickel, titanium, uranium and zinc. They are considered essential to Canada's economic security, required for the transition to a greener economy, and a sustainable source for critical minerals for the nation's partners.

In terms of products and services potentially affected, vehicle batteries are a big one. This applies to electric vehicles used in both the consumer world, as well as industries, such as underground mining.

This also applies to personal technology such as smart phones, laptops, and televisions.

Certain medical equipment, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), monitoring devices and cutting-edge prosthetics, all require certain rare earth elements.

The agricultural technology and renewable energy sectors are also in need of these critical elements.

The Government of Ontario is now developing its first ever Critical Minerals Strategy to help generate investment, increase the province's competitiveness in the global market, as well as create employment opportunities in the mining sector. The province's list has an 80 per cent overlap with the national list.

Ontario is already a world class producer of nickel, gold, copper, zinc and platinum group elements, with 10 of the province's 40 operating mines producing critical minerals.

More than $170 million worth of critical minerals-focused exploration was performed in 2019, which accounted for 34 per cent of all exploration spending.

Locally, there is further potential. There are more than 1,300 rare earth element occurrences open for staking in the Timmins area alone. These include copper, niobium and vermiculite.

Although there are more than 150 known rare earth elements, just four have been widely commercialized – bastnaesite, monazite, and xenotime alone account for 80 per cent of global production.

Andrew Autio is the Local Journalism Initiative reporter for The Daily Press. LJI is a federally funded program.

Andrew Autio, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Daily Press