South Korea is reopening a long-shuttered tungsten mine, one of many examples around the globe of countries scrambling to secure access to the raw materials for a green energy revolution. “Resources have become weapons and strategic assets,” says Lee Dong-seob, VP of Almonty Korea Tungsten Corp, per Reuters, which reports that overall demand for rare minerals is projected to increase four-fold by 2040. Major nations now see it as a national security issue because China is well established as the dominant supplier of many critical minerals. "In the critical raw material restaurant, China is sitting eating its dessert, and the rest of the world is in the taxi reading the menu," as one expert put it.
South Korea is home to chipmakers like Samsung that need oodles of heat-resistant tungsten. China supplies 95% of it, and that imbalance can easily put South Korea's economy at risk and create ripple effects in global supply chains. However, South Korea has a massive untapped tungsten deposit, and Almonty Corp pitches the mine's reopening as a source of national pride. This, in turn, could give South Korea a leg up in what Reuters calls “supply-chain diplomacy,” in which governments increasingly focus their dealings on access to the raw materials.
There are no quick or painless solutions. Mining is energy intensive and environmentally risky, and some governments have learned not to turn a blind eye to such concerns. Two recent examples: the cancellation of a lithium mining contract in Serbia and the Biden administration’s revocation of nickel and copper leases in Minnesota. Furthermore, mining operations take years to develop, as noted in a Globe and Mail opinion piece headlined “So much for the electric vehicle revolution,” which contends that the metals crunch means a widespread shift to electric cars won’t happen anytime soon. That’s why researchers are working to find alternatives that reduce the overall need for metals, such as solid state batteries, hydrogen fuel cells (which Elon Musk calls “fool cells,” per CNBC), and other ideas that will require years more research. (Read more rare earth minerals stories.)