June 22, 2016
Minerals are essential to our national security. ...
It’s Dr. Erik Wolf’s job to make life easier for service members returning home from conflict with amputations. Overseeing neuromusculoskeletal injury rehab at the US Army Medical Research and Materiel Command (USAMRMC) in Fort Detrick, Md., Dr. Wolf has dedicated his professional life to delivering prosthetic solutions for wounded veterans.
But even Dr. Wolf—a forward-thinking PhD in biomedical engineering—has been occasionally astounded at the “rapid” development of prosthetics over the past decade.
“There have been some real, major advancements,” said Wolf, who previously worked with Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Wolf’s arrival at Walter Reed in 2007 was at the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Service members returning from war with amputations “were obviously huge driving forces to move [prosthetic] technology forward. …And that drove a lot of interest and investment across the country to push the envelope.”
That proverbial pushing of the envelope has resulted in two key things: the creation of lightweight prosthetic limbs that function more efficiently; and innovations in robotic technology that enable brain signals to control prosthetic devices. Each advancement would not be possible without materials such as iron ore, chromium, nickel, molybdenum and other minerals that can be sourced in the U.S.
“The unique and versatile properties of minerals play a crucial role in many medical advancements,” said Hal Quinn, president and CEO of the National Mining Association. “Few people are aware of the role minerals play in many technological advancements, but especially advancements in healthcare and medicine, like prosthetics, chemotherapy, X-rays and cardiology.”
Michael Amrich Jr., a clinical education specialist at Liberating Technologies in Holliston, Mass., has been a prosthetist for 37 years. He likened the improvements in prosthetics over the past decade or so to changes in cell-phone technology—advances also enabled by U.S. minerals.
“The flip phone wasn’t very receptive,” Amrich said. “You’d drop calls, areas wouldn’t pick up service – it was very simple technology [and now you have the] iPhone 7 that can do so much more. Prosthetics are like that – it’s unbelievable how much it has changed.”
Carbon composite fiber has been integral to the development of more lightweight devices, and stronger, custom-made prosthetic sockets, frames and connectors. Amrich also noted that battery chemistry – vital to the advances in robotics – has improved from nickel metal hydride to lithium ion polymer.
There have been “a wealth of advances” in devices built for arms, hands, wrists, shoulders and fingers, though Wolf said that the ability to control those prosthetics intuitively still largely eludes developers. If a patient has a robotic hand, external sensors are placed over the remaining musculature of their arm. To open the hand, a muscle must be contracted; to close the hand, a different muscle must be contracted.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is currently funding a program that addresses that lack of intuition in prosthetics. Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces seeks to take control systems and implant them in the user, attaching electrodes—composed of molybdenum-processed steel alloys—to residual nerves. The patient would theoretically be able to control those prosthetic devices while also receiving input from the environment around them.
Red Conger, president of Freeport-McMoRan—Americas and NMA board member, said “I am excited about advancements in technology, science and medicine that combine to benefit mankind and how consistent production of low-cost copper and molybdenum in the U.S. has contributed to these advancements. We must ensure that regulations going forward do not overreach and limit the production and supply of these critical metals.”
Despite being home to a wealth of mineral resources, the U.S. imports one-half of all non-fuel minerals and is 100 percent import-reliant on 20 key minerals. This discrepancy is largely due to the fact that the U.S. has one of the world’s lengthiest mine-permitting processes, clocking in at 7-10 years on average.