Protocol - The hunt for critical minerals

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By Sarah Roach, Nat Rubio-Licht and Jamie Condliffe
September 12, 2022


Good morning! Researchers are hoping a contest can help tackle the tough job of mapping critical mineral deposits. No pressure at all, but the deadline to be less dependent on foreign mineral sources is coming up fast.

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The mineral mapping race


The U.S. has big plans for the clean energy transition. But it’s still leaning on foreign sources for a key part: critical minerals.

U.S. critical mineral deposits remain mostly unmapped, as the process of finding them is long and labor intensive. But that may be starting to change, reports Protocol’s Lisa Martine Jenkins.

  • The Department of Defense and the U.S. Geological Survey created a competition: to build AI that can help assess the mining potential of 50 minerals that are critical to clean energy tech.
  • “Right now, we do this basically one commodity at a time,” Graham Lederer, a USGS research geologist, told Lisa. “But if you set up the machine learning algorithms well and generalize the solutions well, [we] could be doing all 50 [critical mineral] commodities simultaneously.”

The sooner this happens, the better. Once geologists have a clear picture of the country’s resources, the government can begin to build out the domestic mineral supply chain.

  • Part of the problem is that the agency is currently backtracking: It needs to digitize decades of mapped minerals collected before digital data storage even existed.
  • At the moment the agencies estimate that roughly 10% of the USGS’s core database of 100,000 maps have been even partially digitized.

But the agencies are in a bit of a time crunch. The Energy Act of 2020 set a goal of completing all critical mineral assessments in four years.

  • At its current rate, that’s the timeframe for mapping a single mineral. “That requires an order of magnitude increase in the efficiency,” Lederer said.

The U.S. worries that depending on outside sources for critical minerals puts the country at a disadvantage, as competition for critical minerals remains fierce. Building out the domestic critical mineral supply chain could both mitigate risk and help allies speed up their own clean energy transition. And if the competition goes well, AI might be the solution.

— Nat Rubio-Licht

Open URL

More curbs on China’s chips?


The U.S. government reportedly plans to impose new regulations that could broaden its existing curbs on the export of chipmaking tools and some AI chips to China, Reuters reports.

The U.S. has taken an aggressive stance to choke off China's access to advanced semiconductor technologies. Protocol’s Max A. Cherney has reported extensively on how that’s been happening:

  • The administration has begun to block U.S. exports of tools that print chips involving a specific transistor type known as FinFET, sending letters to toolmakers such as KLA and Lam Research forbidding them from supplying specific kinds of equipment to Chinese factories.
  • Nvidia and AMD have also received notifications from the government, warning them that new licensing requirements are being implemented that will affect the sale of AI-related chips to China and Russia.

New rules from the government would codify the restrictions set forth in those letters, according to Reuters. This is a fairly standard process following on from the sending of such letters. But the new rules may reach further.

  • According to some sources that spoke to Reuters, the new rules “would likely include additional actions against China.”
  • That could include “license requirements on shipments to China of products that contain the targeted chips.”

— Jamie Condliffe

​The broadband holdup


A small community in Louisiana has needed better broadband for years, and new federal funding is supposed to make that happen. But a major telecom provider is standing in the way of that help, painting a picture of what’s happening as these funds get distributed around the country.

East Carroll parish is in a standoff with ISP provider Sparklight over $4 million in funding for faster, more affordable internet access, my colleague Issie Lapowsky reports.

  • The state of Louisiana awarded one rural ISP, Conexon Connect, a grant to serve the parish, which would kick out Sparklight as the area’s internet provider. So Sparklight protested it.
  • But residents say Sparklight’s service is weak, and they aren’t convinced it’s protesting in good faith. “It seemed like a last-minute effort to block competition,” Nathaniel Wills, an organizer with a church group that’s fighting for better broadband in the area, told Issie.

This fight is important because of something even bigger: $42.5 billion in Congressional broadband funding is about to flow into states. And as Conexon CEO Jonathan Chambers put it, that means “it’s going to get worse.”

  • In Louisiana alone, 15 other broadband grants that have already been awarded are being contested by telecom giants, and similar fights are happening around the U.S.

There are ways to solve these problems. Minnesota has rules that punish telecom companies that challenge a broadband grant if they then fail to deliver service.

  • Other states make companies show where they already offer service up front, so they can pinpoint the areas that are eligible for funding.

Distributing these broadband grants will be messy. But if there’s anyone who might be able to stop ISPs’ bullying tactics, Chambers told Issie he thinks it would be the agency approving grants in the first place: the NTIA.

— Sarah Roach


Combining the power of cutting-edge tech, effective governance principles and a civic movement, Project Liberty is transforming how the internet works and who it works for. Join us at Unfinished Live, September 21-24, to learn more and to get involved.

Learn more

People are talking


Bob Chapek said Disney is trying to figure out how the metaverse fits into the "lifestyle" of the company:

  • "How is our next-gen storytelling leveraging what we know about a guest uniquely in this Disney lifestyle?"

Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot said the company is still open to other partnerships after Tencent increased its stake:

  • "We remain totally independent, and we can act with any outside company if we want to. That was a big negotiation with Tencent. We can do whatever we want."

​Coming this week


Devopsdays Boston starts today at the Boston Center for Arts.

Twitter whistleblower Peiter Zatko will testify before Congress tomorrow. Twitter’s shareholder meeting is on Wednesday.

TriNet begins Wednesday. Bob Iger and Jane Goodall are expected to speak.

Nikola founder Trevor Milton’s securities-fraud trial starts this week. He’s facing allegations that he lied about Nikola’s progress on environmentally-friendly tech.

Making moves


Amazon is buying Cloostermans, a warehouse machinery and robotics company, to automate portions of its warehouse operations.

Stephen Gillett is replacing Andy Conrad as the head of Verily Life Sciences, a division within Alphabet. The unit also raised $1 billion to expand its data-driven health care products.

Former Tesla CFO Deepak Ahuja is joining Zipline, the drone delivery company, as chief business officer and CFO.

​The state of innovation


Join Protocol Policy as we dive into the U.S.’s national strategy on innovation, what’s working, what isn’t and what policy changes we can expect from the year ahead. 10 a.m. PT on Sept. 27.

RSVP here.

In other news


Elon Musk sent another letter attempting to stop the Twitter deal, this time citing Peiter Zatko's severance payment. Twitter called it "wrongful and invalid."

Netflix is working with Ubisoft to launch three new mobile games in 2023, which will only be available to Netflix subscribers.

Amazon merchants are bracing for a slow holiday season as inflation curbs consumer spending.

In even more Amazon news: The company is preparing to cut about 159 Amazon Care employees as it gets ready to shut down the telehealth service.

Patreon cut its entire security team but said that the layoffs wouldn’t have an impact on the company’s security — which is kind of rude.

EV chip maker Wolfspeed plans to build a new facility in North Carolina, which would enable a 10-fold increase in its manufacturing capacity.

I’m a big kid now


In an effort to shed its reputation as just a playground for young kids, Roblox is taking aim at its fastest-growing demographic: players aged 17 to 24. Though making the platform more adult-centered is key to building what it’s calling a “human co-experience” — its version of the metaverse — it also opens the door for big risks, given all those youngsters who will continue to use the platform.


Combining the power of cutting-edge tech, effective governance principles and a civic movement, Project Liberty is transforming how the internet works and who it works for. Join us at Unfinished Live, September 21-24, to learn more and to get involved.

Learn more


Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to, or our tips line, Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.


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