Critical Minerals Symposium Highlights Path to Domestic Supply Chain Security and Economic Growth

Feb. 16, 2024

UArizona's School of Mining & Mineral Resources fosters Arizona's role in the 'Clean Energy' revolution

Critical Minerals Symposium panels members

Critical Minerals Symposium panels members (L-R) Kray Luxbacher, PhD, UArizona department head of Mining and Geological Engineering; Pat Risner, President, Hermosa project, South32; Lea Márquez Peterson, Arizona Corporation Commissioner; Joellen Russell, PhD, department head of Geosciences and UArizona climate researcher

On Thursday, February 15, the University of Arizona‘s School of Mining & Mineral Resources co-hosted the AZ Critical Minerals Symposium with global mining and metals company South32. The purpose of the Symposium was to open a dialogue between the mining industry, government representatives, and academia about the pivotal role of critical minerals in Arizona. The dialogue was particularly important coming in the wake of the announcement of South32’s Board-approved investment in its Hermosa Project to develop federally designated critical minerals zinc and manganese at its Southern Arizona project site.

“When you announce a $2.16 billion investment, you have to quickly figure out how you're going to train and develop the workforce to operate that equipment and operate the facility," said Hermosa Project President, South32, Pat Risner, noting that many of the mine's systems will utilize automated technology that will require a new skillset. "We are very fortunate to be developing a project like this in a community that has a world-class university like the University of Arizona, and one of the few remaining top-notch mining schools. This will be a game changer for jobs in this region.”

Elliott Cheu, PhD, welcomes guests at the Symposium

Elliott Cheu, PhD, Interim Senior Vice President of Research and Innovation, UArizona, welcomes guests at the Symposium

"Critical minerals are key, whether they're used for our phones, our computers, our cars, or medical devices," Elliott Cheu, PhD, UArizona interim senior vice president of Research and Innovation, told the gathering. “It allows us as a university to lean into supporting the mining industry. This is an economic boon for the region, but it also showcases how important Arizona is in this ecosystem, and how we as a university can partner in robust ways with industry and our community to ensure that we have a supply of critical minerals that meets the nation's needs.”

C.J. Karamargin, senior advisor to U.S. Representative Juan Ciscomani, pointed out that the United States boasted 25 mining schools in 1982, but the number has dwindled to 14 in 2024. "It will become increasingly hard for us to keep up with the challenges before us,” he said. “We need to be fully supportive of what the University of Arizona is doing in training the next generation of engineers who can figure out ways to extract this critical ore from the earth and use it to ease our transition to a green energy future."

"We can't rely on foreign competitors or adversaries to help supply critical minerals that underpin innovations and key components of our electric transportation and defense systems," said Christopher Phalen, senior policy advisor, Office of Senator Kyrsten Sinema. "If we leave the production of the very minerals and materials that serve as the basis of our innovative technologies to our competitors, we risk leaving a glaring hole in our economic competitiveness and national defense. South32's announcement showcases that Arizona can be a leader in this ecosystem and deliver the minerals and materials that we need."

Kray Luxbacher moderating at the symposium

Kray Luxbacher, Department Head & Professor, Mining and Geological Engineering, Leadership Chair, Gregory H and Lisa S Boyce, moderated the symposium

Moderated by Kray Luxbacher, PhD, UArizona department head of Mining and Geological Engineering, the Symposium panel included Pat Risner; Lea Márquez Peterson, Arizona Corporation Commissioner; and Joellen Russell, PhD, department head of Geosciences and climate researcher at UArizona. The panel highlighted Arizona’s unique role in securing a domestic supply chain of the materials needed to power the clean energy revolution. It also outlined the challenges and opportunities facing Arizona as the energy transition continues and we seek to strengthen the nation’s supply of critical minerals.

Arizona is a hotbed of critical minerals and materials such as zinc, manganese, and copper, poising the state to create jobs and economic growth—all while protecting the natural environment and strengthening national security. "Critical minerals have viable deposits only in a few places," said Lea Márquez Peterson, noting that the U.S. produces less than 6% of the zinc in the world. With China mining more than 60% of rare earth elements globally, establishing a domestic supply chain would bolster national security and create greater economic stability. "As a Corporation Commissioner, I'm aware that we need to ensure domestic energy production in the future."

Competing in the global clean energy economy will require major investments in America’s infrastructure and domestic supply chains. Meeting the nation’s bold renewable energy goals necessitates rapid deployment of power production and dramatically expanded production of electric vehicles across the country. It will also require a workforce trained in responsibility and sustainability, which is where the vital role of the UArizona School of Mining & Mineral Resources comes in.

Guests networking at the Critical Minerals Symposium

Misael Cabrera, PE, Director, David and Edith Lowell Chair, School of Mining & Mineral Resources, with guests at the Critical Minerals Symposium

"We've worked with communities, the University of Arizona, and others to develop this project in a way that creates opportunity in a region in our state that needs economic development," said Pat Risner.

Asked about the Hermosa Project’s ability to combat the climate crisis, Joellen Russell pointed out that Tucson and Phoenix are the third and fourth fastest-warming cities in the nation. “We're in the bullseye of the climate hot seat here in Arizona,” she said. “And the infrastructure for cooling us must keep increasing. That’s why we’re partnering with Engineering and Mining Engineering on this fantastic new School of Mining & Mineral Resources. All these new technologies are made possible by the critical minerals that we're pulling out of the ground. In earth sciences, the University of Arizona is ranked fourth in the nation, so we're in the right place. This is Arizona. This is what we do. And we're really good at it.”

The Symposium highlighted the fact that the future looks bright for both Arizona’s mining resource ecosystem and the role the UArizona School of Mining & Mineral Resources plays in it. Backed by a wealth of mining professionals, natural resources, and mining companies, the School is poised to rebuild a world-class workforce, not just for the Copper State, but globally. “Today we've heard a lot about copper, even though we're working with South32 on zinc and manganese,” Dr. Luxbacher said. “Copper is synonymous with mining and Arizona, and zinc and manganese will be as well. But Arizona also produces a lot of aggregates and industrial minerals, so the Hermosa project will impact the entire mining industry in Arizona and in the United States."