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Utah’s West Desert could hold a decade’s worth of indium

Sphalerite drill cores, indium deposits, West Desert, Juab County, courtesy, Utah Geological Survey
Utah Geological Survey
Drill core from 2022 exploration at West Desert. Sphalerite, shown here, is known for containing zinc, but at West Desert, it also contains high concentrations of indium.

Utah’s West Desert is home to the only recognized deposit of indium in the United States. The little-known metal is used in everyday devices like smartphones and solar panels.

The Utah Geological Survey was recently awarded a $300,000 federal grant to further investigate whether the indium in western Juab County is worth extracting. The research will be done in conjunction with the mining company that owns the deposit, American West Metals.

With no production anywhere in the United States, securing a domestic supply of the metal is something the officials have their eyes on.

“Indium is one of the U.S. federal government designated critical minerals, meaning it's very essential to our national economy and security,” said Utah Geological Survey senior geologist and principal investigator of the study Stephanie Mills. “But we have a supply chain that's vulnerable, in this case, because we don't actually produce any of it.”

If the deposit proves fruitful, scientists say it could satiate the needs of the United States for the next decade.

Indium is most commonly extracted as a byproduct of zinc mining. According to American West, indium is present in “unusually high levels” in zinc deposits at the West Desert site.

Although future indium mining in Utah is a possibility, just how much of it exists must be determined first.

“That's all kind of work that gets done down the road once it's kind of been established – how much metal is there in the first place?” said Mills. “You have to know there's enough to make it worth your time.

Decisions like whether a future mine would take the form of an underground operation or a more intrusive open pit would come much later in the process, said Mills. American West says it is focused on “low-footprint” mines.

If mining is in the future, environmental advocates say everything from water rights, to impacts on local wildlife, to how transport would be handled would need to be considered.

“It’s not the easiest place to get to, so that would have to be looked at,” said Steve Erickson, Utah coordinator and board member at the Great Basin Water Network. “All of those issues would have to be examined in this process.”

Other groups also worry about the human impacts of future mines.

“While [mining] can support clean energy initiatives, this can only be achieved when done responsibly in compliance with high-bar environmental and human rights standards,” said Sierra Club Utah Chapter Director Carly Ferro. “To protect the values we care about, like clean air and water, and the landscapes we love, we must consider a qualified recycle first strategy, then when mining is necessary, ensure it adheres to the highest standards to be performed in a sustainable way and protects human rights, labor rights, indigenous rights and the environment."

The geological research is expected to last for the next three years.

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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