High-grade gallium confirmed in Montana

US Critical Materials identifies outstanding gallium grades with the high-grade rare earths at its Sheep Creek project.

In addition to showing promise as a high-grade domestic source of rare earths, US Critical Materials Corp.’s Sheep Creek project in Montana shows the potential to be an equally high-grade alternative to China for the gallium used in a wide array of high-tech, green energy, and military applications.

“US Critical Materials looks forward to being the primary gallium producer in the United States,” said US Critical Materials President Jim Hedrick, who worked for 29 years as a rare earth commodity specialist at the U.S. Geological Survey and former Bureau of Mines.

In his current role, Hedrick is focused on Sheep Creek, a promising source of at least 13 minerals critical to the United States.

While gallium, rare earths, scandium, and yttrium were first discovered at Sheep Creek when the project was being explored for niobium in the 1960s, there were very few uses for these obscure elements at the time. Six decades later, however, this group of tech metals has been elevated onto the U.S. critical minerals list due to their uses in electric vehicles, computer chips, high-strength alloys, and a plethora of other high-tech and consumer devices.

Gallium, which has long been overshadowed by the group of 15 technology elements known as rare earths, has recently garnered the spotlight due to its importance in chipmaking, coupled with America’s heavy reliance on China for this critical metal.

According to the most recent data from the USGS, China produces more than 98% of the world’s supply of gallium.

“With this monopoly power comes tremendous ability to target adversaries and to use this economic position to shape the behavior of other governments,” Tim Moughon, director of field intelligence at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said during a December presentation in Nevada on the national security implications of minerals critical to the U.S.

In mid-2023, China emplaced state-controlled restrictions on the exports of gallium needed for semiconductors, 5G technology, smartphones, satellite systems, solar energy, and next-generation defense systems.

Market and geopolitical analysts believe that China’s restriction on exports of gallium, along with germanium and graphite, is likely a retaliatory strike in a technology trade war with the U.S. and other Western nations.

“So, these aren’t hypotheticals,” said Moughon. “We see adversaries use monopolistic power very intentionally to advance their own national interests.”

High-grade gallium at Sheep Creek

US Critical Materials believes its Sheep Creek project in southwestern Montana – along with a critical minerals separation technology it is developing in partnership with Idaho National Laboratories – could help break America’s heavy dependence on China and others for gallium, rare earths, and other critical minerals.

Last year, the company reported that 52 surface samples collected at Sheep Creek returned an average grade of 9% total rare earth oxides, with individual samples containing as much as 21.7% TREO.

“We have confirmed that Sheep Creek is the highest-grade rare-earth deposit in the United States, with a multibillion-dollar resource value,” Hedrick said at the time.

New sampling has demonstrated that this Montana property also hosts gallium grades on par with the Apex Mine in Utah, which was the first mine in the world to produce gallium and germanium as primary metals instead of byproducts.

“US Critical Materials prime gallium claims average over 300 ppm (parts per million) and go as high as 1,370 PPM,” Hedrick said.

According to USGS reports, the ore mined at Apex averaged 332 ppm gallium.

“Not only is our gallium high grade, but we are also confident that we will be able to create a separation process that will be environmentally respectful,” the US Critical Materials president added.

Sampling of carbonatite rocks at Sheep Creek returned high-grade gallium, rare earths and other critical minerals.

Separation tech is key

The processing and separation of critical minerals like gallium and rare earths is a key link in establishing domestic supply chains in the U.S.

China’s global monopoly on the production of gallium, rare earths, and other critical minerals is largely due to its low-cost processing of these materials.

While lower labor costs and much less stringent environmental laws give China a competitive advantage, the U.S. has the ability to leverage innovation to push down the costs and elevate the sustainability of processing critical minerals.

“By advancing technology, the US can develop new products and materials that allow for the US to manufacture something for one-tenth to one-hundredth the cost of doing so in China,” said Robert Fox, a senior chemical research scientist at Idaho National Lab. “So, whereas it takes China a billion dollars and much environmental pollution to do something, we can develop technology that allows us to do the same thing for $100 million and little to zero pollution.”

“Advancing technology and R&D is our ticket to making China obsolete,” he added.

When it comes to achieving this goal when it comes to gallium, rare earths, and other critical minerals, US Critical Materials and Idaho National Lab are collaborating on developing a low-cost and environmentally sound critical minerals processing technology.

Idaho National Lab, whose involvement with rare earth separation goes back to the dawn of the nuclear age in the 1950s, has decades of expertise to bring to the table.

“Our CRADA (cooperative research and development agreement) with US Critical Materials allows us to continue to develop our prowess and to expand our technological solutions to solve rare earth element (REE) challenges,” Fox told Metal Tech News in December.

That same technology is expected to also be used to separate gallium from concentrates produced at a future Sheep Creek mine – providing the U.S. with a reliable and sustainable alternative to China for this increasingly important tech metal.

Also published on Metal-Tech News: High-grade gallium confirmed in Montana

US Critical Materials