Exploring Clean Technology

COVID-19 Pandemic and Critical Minerals

The shortages of needed medical supplies during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has served as a reminder of the importance of critical material supply chains, as many of the diagnostic health care technologies needed to treat and combat the spread of COVID-19 rely on minerals like rare earths and lithium.

Accurate, speedy and simple diagnostic technologies are now vitally important to stop the spread of COVID-19 and help patients get the care they need. For example, Ottawa-based biotechnology company Spartan Bioscience’s Spartan Cube test system was approved by Health Canada last week. The Spartan Cube uses a coffee-cup-sized portable DNA analyzer to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus and can deliver results in about an hour. Its ability to provide a result without technical staff is ideal for fast and portable detection of the virus because it can be deployed in non-laboratory settings such as airports, cruise ships, military bases and other points of entry. E-gene real-time Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assays, such as that in Spartan Cube technology, use Light Emitting Diode (LED) technology to excite a mixture of biological material and fluorescent to incur a possible reaction. Critical minerals used in this technology include yttrium, gallium and cerium. The portable nature of the Cube also requires rechargeable lithium ion batteries.

Treating severe-case patients often requires the use of ventilators to deliver oxygen to the lungs. For the majority of COVID-19 cases, patients do not require ventilators, but, for the minority who do, they can be on the machinery for anywhere from 10 to 20 days. The ventilators’ electric motors rely on the same high strength permanent magnets, made with the rare earth elements neodymium and praseodymium, that are also used in wind turbine generators and electric vehicle motors.

Due to their optical properties, the rare earths are also used in many imaging technologies such as computed tomography scans, magnetic resonance imagery (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET) imaging and X-rays. Gadolinium is actually the most used rare earth in medical diagnosis within the MRI machine. Gadolinium ions enhance MRI images and have been used in intravenous radio-contrast agents to improve the sensitivity and specificity of diagnostic images.

Living tissue researchers rely on the rare earth europium for the sensitive luminescence in molecular genetics to mark specific strands of DNA when attached as a tag to complex biochemicals. Post-diagnosis care would not be possible without critical minerals, like the rare earths.

Beyond the traditional medical field, 3D printing is now a viable method to produce and supply safety equipment. In Toronto, the Ontario Power Generation is utilizing 3D printing technology to produce plastic face shields to address the pressing need for personal protective equipment for frontline health-care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, 3D printing is likely to be the future method of manufacturing permanent magnets for medical or other speciality applications.

Finally, immediate communication and tracking systems have been essential in allowing governments and organizations to provide updates and best practices in real time. Countries like Singapore and China are using cellphone-based tools to identify and monitor people who might have been exposed to someone with COVID-19. The United Kingdom is building a contact tracing app, and in the United States, Google and Apple partnered to build a Bluetooth-based tracking system that can automatically log people’s interactions.

Once the current pandemic has been dealt with, new secure supply chains for defense, industrial, clean technology and pharmaceutical applications need to be established in North America to reduce reliance on China as a sole source of supply.

In the meantime, we hope all are staying safe!