Today’s Key Takeaway: Alaska has a history of stepping up to the plate to provide America with critical minerals when they are needed the most.
Alaska’s crust: A battery to clean energy
A.J.Roan, North of 60 Mining News, August 3, 2023
For those in the know, Alaska’s resources aren’t just some surprise windfall for renewable energy technologies. While precious metals like gold and silver have been the primary focus of more than a century of mining up north, the 49th State is home to 49 of the 50 materials on the United States’ critical minerals list and has a history of stepping up to the plate to provide America with critical minerals when they are needed the most.
Looking ahead over the next two to three decades, that need is to help supply the enormous quantities of minerals and metals needed to build America’s envisioned clean energy future.
According to Visual Capitalist, roughly 115 pounds (52 kilograms) of graphite, 77 lb (35 kg) of aluminum, 64 lb (29 kg) of nickel, 44 lb (20 kg) of copper, 44 lb (20 kg) of steel, 22 lb (10 kg) of manganese, 18 lb (eight kg) of cobalt, 13 lb (six kg) of lithium, and 11 lb (five kg) of iron comprise the entirety of an EV battery, at least, one type of EV battery chemistry.
Aside from aluminum, every other instance of these materials can be found in Alaska and in quantities that would not only reduce supply pressures expected in the coming years but also do so domestically.
Even better, despite its challenging locale, having all the necessary resources in a singular location could create much less strain on the supply chain, as once the infrastructure has been built, the remaining difficulty would be getting mines permitted – but that’s a story for another time.
Using the framework of just the nine materials (technically eight if you separate iron) needed in batteries, the history of these materials in the Far North state can perhaps paint a better picture of why Alaska can help shape the future of clean energy.
More than Jefferson’s coin
First identified and isolated as an element by Swedish chemist Axel Cronstedt in 1751, it wouldn’t be until two centuries later that nickel would rise to prominence in plating and alloys.
Deriving its name from an old Saxon term called Kupfernickel or Devil’s Copper – much like pyrite being called Fool’s Gold for its similarity to the precious metal – nickel has a similar appearance as copper in its raw form but held no copper at all, much to the dismay of miners.
Dating back to as early as 1921, nickel has long been known to exist in Alaska and much like many of the other resources needed to support war efforts, exploration for this material would be sought during World War II.
During the years 1942 and 1943, the nickel-copper deposits on Yakobi Island along the Southeast Alaskan Panhandle were surveyed for this alloying metal. According to a report by the U.S. Department of the Interior, prior estimates based on scant data at the time set Yakobi as containing 2.4 million tons averaging 0.44% nickel and 0.29% copper in three deposits; 1.04 million tons averaging 0.25% nickel and 0.25% copper in two other deposits; and 2.4 million tons averaging 0.31% nickel and 0.25% copper in other bodies of interest.
Despite these sizable numbers from over 80 years ago, this site has never been actively mined, and thus those resources still reside there to this day.
And that’s just one possible mine. Exploration is ongoing for nickel through various companies, but as it stands, it will still be several years before production can begin, if it ever does.
Although not considered an element or mineral on its own, the Department of Energy has determined electrical steel as part of the federal agency’s critical minerals list.
An alloy of iron and carbon, electrical steel is a specialty subset of steel used in the cores of electromagnetic devices such as motors, generators, and transformers. This ferromagnetic material is able to magnify the magnetic effect of the coils necessary to generate electricity, hence its name.
Obviously, electrical steel cannot be mined up in the preferred state, but iron and carbonic resources have long been known to reside in the state.
With at least 24 known occurrences of iron throughout Alaska, from the Southeastern Panhandle to the furthest tip of the Aleutian, although not a critical mineral, its importance in history is signaled by the naming of its Age.
Similarly, carbon resources have kept Interior Alaska warm for decades with the Usibelli Coal Mineand as a necessary ingredient to super-firing iron to produce steel. While neither of these materials is a primary concern nor even a general focus as the limelight for the other more “critical” critical minerals continues to steal the show, electrical steel will need these resources.
And if not from Alaska, they’ll come from somewhere.
Creek runs deep with Graphite
Perhaps one of the most compelling cases for the abundance of resources in Alaska is Graphite Creek.
Lying about 50 miles north of the deepwater port facilities in Nome, Alaska, Graphite Creek hosts the largest known graphite deposit in America, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
This world-class deposit of graphite was first discovered by Gold Rush-era prospectors who first stumbled upon it while scouring the regions north of Nome for gold more than a century ago.
With World War I driving a strong demand for graphite, Norwegian gold miner Nicholas Tweet staked the high-grade Graphite Creek deposit in 1915 and leased the claims to the Alaska Graphite Company. Over the ensuing two years, some 500 tons of graphite was mined from high-grade lenses and shipped to Seattle and San Francisco.
Though production stopped at the end of the war, the Tweet family has held onto its claims to the mineral rights at Graphite Creek – waiting for the right time and the right company to realize the potential of the abundant high-grade graphite found there.
With the rise of EVs driving massive new demand for graphite, that time is now.
Graphite One Inc., which cut a lease and option agreement with the Tweet family roughly a decade ago, has outlined 32.5 million metric tons of measured and indicated resources averaging 5.25% (1.7 million metric tons) graphite, plus 254.7 million metric tons of inferred resource averaging 5.11% (13 million metric tons) graphite.
This already world-class resource is based on drilling along three miles of the 10 miles of known mineralization.
A 2022 prefeasibility study based on this resource envisions a mine at Graphite Creek that would produce roughly 51,800 metric tons of graphite concentrate per year, which would be shipped to Graphite One’s planned processing and recycling facility in Washington, a locale selected for its abundant low-cost and low-carbon hydroelectricity.
This all-American graphite-to-battery materials supply chain has attracted the attention of the U.S. Department of Defense, which is investing $37.5 million to support a feasibility study for a mine that would once again supply the U.S. with graphite in its time of need.
While Graphite Creek has been known about for more than a century, another critical EV battery material was only recently discovered within the state’s borders – lithium.
Prince of energy metals
Garnering all the attention amongst critical minerals, perhaps due to its namesake portable power provider, lithium was only recently found in potentially economic quantities within the Last Frontier.
Discovery Alaska announced in mid-2022 that it made a somewhat ironic lithium discovery at its Coal Creek prospect on the Chulitna property about four miles (6 kilometers) west of the Parks Highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks.
After acquiring the Chulitna property in early 2021, through the staking of roughly 77 square miles (199 square kilometers) of state mining claims covering the Partin Creek gold-silver-copper prospect and the Coal Creek tin-silver-zinc-target, upon further examination of historic core from drilling in the 1980s, the Australia-based exploration company found evidence this underexplored area holds lithium.
First discovered by the late Charles Hawley in 1972 and explored by Houston Oil and Minerals in the 1980s, after drilling 42 holes, the Coal Creek deposit contains roughly 4.8 million metric tons of historical resource averaging 0.27% tin (another critical mineral but not for EVs).
While the resource does not meet the rigor of current reporting standards, sampling of core stored at the Alaska Geologic Materials Center in Anchorage and four holes drilled in 2006 confirmed the tin-silver potential of this easily accessible property.
Furthermore, Discovery Alaska verified the evidence of lithium mineralization on the Coal Creek core stored at the AGMC.
While hard rock lithium receives even less attention than its briny sibling, where it has been found once, does not write off the possibility of more being found in the largest state.
As one of the three initials in an NMC (nickel-manganese-cobalt) lithium-ion battery, manganese is a keystone to the successful production of EV batteries.
While lithium-ion batteries are powering enormous new demand for manganese, steel and other alloys remain the dominant use for this critical metal.
According to the United States Geological Survey, an estimated 640 metric tons of manganese were used for steelmaking, batteries, and other applications in the U.S. during 2021. To supply this, globally, there were roughly 20,000 metric tons of manganese mined the same year, which primarily came from South Africa, Gabon, and China, which accounted for approximately 78% – and therein lies the rub.
Although considered slightly in oversupply, which is why it has not captured headline attention, the U.S. has not produced any significant quantity of ore with manganese content greater than 20% since 1973.
According to thediggings.com, Alaska holds roughly 15 occurrences of manganese in nearly 40 prospects.
Of those prospects, a good chunk of them resides within the Nome Mining District, which was made famous through its own gold rush after the Klondike. Neighbor to the Graphite Creek deposit, manganese is never mined on its own and is often found with iron and titanium.
Considered a transition metal, it shares its use like nickel and supplements its more prominent elements by alloying, particularly in stainless steel.
While there exists sizable reserves of this critical mineral in the U.S., manganese is not mined in America and is, therefore, at risk to national security due to overdependence on imports.
Move over lithium, cobalt is coming
The highly controversial and most expensive of all battery metals, cobalt, is infamously supplied by the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The perception that cobalt could be tainted by DRC human rights abuses and lax environmental standards in China, as well as its looming cost, has automobile and battery manufacturers looking for solutions, including less cobalt-intensive recipes for cathodes.
Nevertheless, while the world waits for the research to catch up, the transition and, in particular, global warming, will wait for no one.
With multiple projects being spun out in the Lower 48, due to sharing its home with copper, chromium, nickel, silver, and iron as a byproduct, the Southeast Alaska Panhandle may be the most prospective area for cobalt in the state, with USGS even asking whether the silver-rich veins at Hecla Mining Company’s Greens Creek Mine on Admiralty Island could also contain cobalt.
Home to the United States’ largest and oldest silver mine, the query of cobalt at Greens Creek is not unfounded, considering that the historical mine produced cobalt, nickel, and copper from a rich deposit just a few miles to the northeast.
While there is little information on the amount of cobalt produced at this mine that went into operation in 1895, referred to as Funter Bay Nickel and Perkovich Cobalt, there is evidence that rich deposits of the battery metal remain.
According to a historical resource calculated in 1984, the Funter Bay deposit hosts roughly 508,000 tons of prospective ore averaging 0.15% cobalt, 0.34% nickel, and 0.35% copper. And, like the nearby Greens Creek Mine, the Funter Bay deposit is also reported to host silver, gold, zinc and lead.
Aside from that, Windy Craggy, which is about 30 miles from the Alaska border in far northwestern British Columbia, hosts an estimated 297.4 million metric tons of historical resource averaging 1.38% copper, 0.069% cobalt, 0.2 g/t gold, and 3.83 g/t silver.
This rich store of metals is worth more than US$31 billion based on May 2020 metal prices but is currently locked up in a park, much to Alaskan’s surprise.
Finally, about 70 miles southeast of Windy Craggy, Constantine Metal Resources Ltd. has identified rich VMS deposits on its Palmer project similar to those found at Windy Craggy. While Palmer is better known for the zinc, copper, gold, silver, and barite within its claims, the property northeast of Haines, Alaska, also hosts intriguing hints of cobalt.
Best for last
Setting aside the argument on whether it is truly considered a critical material or not, copper will continue to play its part in all things electric.
At the time of the Gilded Age, copper was ferociously consumed to power the freshly invented lightbulb and eventually send signals across great distances on the silly telephone, yet over 100 years later, the mad dash to transmit motorcars without an internal combustion engine is about as kooky as the race for the direct-current dynamo.
Ignoring also the vast roadblock that has persisted for the enormous Pebble copper project, Alaska was home to another massive copper-producing mine in the years gone by.
“During the two decades preceding and those following World War I, when the United States produced more than half the world’s copper, the mines at Kennecott, Alaska were among the nation’s largest, and contained the last of the great high grade copper ore deposits discovered in the American West. Just as mining technology was gearing up to exploit the low-grade ores that remained in the West, the Kennecott mines exposed an ore deposit of quality unequaled anywhere in the twentieth century.” –excerpt from Historic American Engineering Record, 1987.
The Kennecott Copper Mine was perhaps more significant to the development of Alaska than even the throngs of people the Klondike brought here.
With ore that averaged greater than 25% copper, this was a mine that had verifiable nuggets of this conductive metal.
Considered “exhausted” at the close of the 1930s, after having produced an estimated $200-300 million worth of copper, after 28 years, Kennecott closed its operations.
This phenomenal showing is speckled throughout Alaska’s mining history, and while a tourist site exists today to visit the once great mine, its influence remains and cuts a clear picture that there may still be more to be found.