Researchers from Western Michigan University and the Michigan Geological Survey will be assessing Michigan’s supply minerals considered essential to the nation after receiving a grant from the U.S. Geological Survey.
The grant comes following an executive order signed by President Donald Trump calling for a strategy to ensure a secure supply of critical minerals. The grant was received by the university in late May and totaled $35,000, the largest amount possible.
The research team will be led by Dr. William B. Harrison III, professor emeritus in the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences at WMU and the director of the Michigan Geological Repository for Research and Education. Those working on the project will be cataloging unpublished and previously published critical minerals information at the MGRRE over the next year.
“While there is still a field component to the study of geology, many geologists today actually focus on what new things we can learn from old data, old samples and old observations. New technology and new ways of thinking about Earth processes have revolutionized how we understand earth history and the distribution of rock in time and space,” said Dr. Peter Voice, a geologist at WMU and one of the researchers cataloging the MGRRE.
Industry has led to many advances in geologic research, Voice said, and as potential uses are found for less common elements geologists are needed to find out where those elements are found. “A lot of this data is already known or at least hinted at in previous work, so data mining of old publications and data sets has become very important. A lot of the work in my career has been through data mining the geologic literature,” he said.
Voice said that there were a multitude of factors in the past that could lead to data remaining unpublished. “Prior to the 1970s, much of the raw data – chemical analyses, mineral frequency data, etc. was not commonly published as tables and appendices in journal articles,” he said. It wasn’t until the 1970s that geological professional societies began to develop data repositories, he said. Although nearly all academic journals have data repositories available online, Voice said that a great deal of historic data has yet to be digitized.
Voice said that there are many other reasons that geological information might be unpublished. One reason of particular note is the cost of typesetting and printing in the early 20th century which could lead scientists to submit summaries but not raw data.
“The materials that I have looked through go back into the early 20th century. There are a number of unpublished reports from the 1930s and 1940s with associated maps and analytical data. There are production statistics, subsurface maps of many of the copper and iron mines, inventories of the mines, and a lot of chemical and geological data that was never published,” Voice said.
Cataloging the information at the MGRRE will help assess Michigan’s potential to supply 35 minerals of strategic importance including 15 rare earth minerals. This following the increasingly tense trade war between China and the United States. China has instituted tariffs of 25% on rare earth mineral exports to the United States and threatened to stop shipments entirely. These minerals are used in consumer products such as phone and are also necessary for missile defense systems and other military equipment.
According to a study by Voice and others, Michigan’s upper peninsula is home to significant amounts of iron and copper. As of 2013 more than $200 billion of both elements had been extracted in the state along with more than $1 billion in gold and silver. The lower peninsula is known for its gypsum, rock salt and brine and by 2013 a little more than $125 billion of those resources had been extracted.
“I think that society does not quite understand that every product in their daily lives – their clothing, their tech, their homes started as natural resources that were processed and refined, synthesized or manufactured,” Voice said. “We add fertilizers to our fields to encourage crop growth – the phosphorus comes from ancient bone beds and the potassium from potash salts. We use a variety of synthetic fibers and other compounds that come from oil. Our phones would exist without a lot of different minerals being mined and processed and turned into useful compounds. So just from an economic perspective, geology underpins many of our industries.”
Voice added that the information found at the MGRRE has led to a better understanding of the resources in the state. “Utilization of these resources ultimately has the potential to create jobs and secures the production of natural resources that might only be available from parts of the world less friendly to the U.S.,” he said.