US Toll Free: +1 877 228 2034
Panama: +507 396 9011
As seen in the Miami Herald
  1. A Basket
  2. B Basket
  3. C Basket
  4. D Basket
  5. Silver

Interesting Articles

Why Rare Strategic Metals for Asset Protection?


Over the last few years there has been a flurry of news reports discussing how important the rare earth metals are to the world economy and technology of today. We have heard how China controls over 95% of the production of the rare earth metals. The rare strategic metals are a group of metals also vital to the world economy that do not make it to the headlines because they are a much smaller market and most are not traded on the LME, (London Metals Exchange). This market is quietly gaining attention among private investors.

Similar to the rare earth metals, rare strategic metals are 95% or more controlled by China. In the 1990´s China made the decision to focus on the metals, and quickly put many mines out of business throughout the world. In 1992 Deng Xiaoping, President of China said, ¨The Middle East has its oil, China has rare earth metals¨. In 2010-2011 China restricted exports of these rare strategic metals by 70%. The Chinese have decided that they no longer need to export the metals. The demand for rare strategic metals within China´s borders are enough to use up 100% of all metals produced. China can now tell companies to produce their high tech products in China with low priced local metals or risk being cut off from metals by producing their products in other countries.

The rare strategic metals are a very inelastic group of metals. These metals are mined primarily as a bi-product of other metals like copper and zinc. This makes it very difficult to increase the amount of metals mined. It is not profitable for mining companies to open mines for the sole purpose of mining these relatively low profit metals as far as mining is concerned.

Demand for these metals is growing exponentially. Smart phone sales, solar power, LCD screens, national defense, Apple iPads, aviation, hybrid vehicles and nuclear energy are all using these metals. National Geographic calls these elements, ¨The Secret Ingredient of almost Everything¨.

The convergence of growing demand and restriction of exports out of China has produced an opportunity of grand proportions for people who see the future use of technology and alternative energy growing. One company out of Germany stepped up and saw the trend. Schweizerische Mettallhandels and its partner for the America´s Swiss Metal Assets saw an opportunity to assist forward thinking clients in setting aside some of these rare strategic metals in their own portfolios.

Swiss Metal Assets has designed the product around small portions of the metals so that most clients can afford to enter the rare strategic metal market. Previously only large companies or institutional investors could afford entry in to this little known market. The metals are put in, ¨Baskets¨, of metals used in certain industries. Swiss Metal Assets purchases the metals from Haines and Maassen a metals trader who has been in business since 1948 supplying German companies with metals.

  1. The Key Industries Basket contains 6 metals
  2. The Solar and Energy Basket contains 3 metals
  3. The Construction and Engineering Basket contains 6 metals
  4. The Defense Basket contains 5 metals
  5. Gold
  6. Silver

The process of storing these rare strategic metals for your portfolio is relatively simple.

  1. Buyer chooses what baskets of metals to purchase.
  2. Basket is filled by, Haines and Maassen in Germany.
  3. Baskets are transported to Switzerland to be added to the vault in the tax free zone.
  4. Buyer decides to sell.
  5. Baskets are liquidated through Haines and Maassen free of Swiss taxes.
  6. Funds are transferred into preferred currency/bank of the seller.

This product was designed to assist in sheltering client assets from the uncertainty of the world currency and financial markets. The team at Swiss Metal Assets can also set up an IRA account for interested parties. If this is something that interests you please contact the team at Swiss Metal Assets.

By: Randy Hilarski - The Rare Metals Guy

The Uses of Indium are Escalating


There has been news swirling around indium over the last few months. Companies are finding new uses for the metal and the current uses are expanding production. This is all very exciting for the mining industry and exposure of indium in peoples’ portfolios.

Indium has the symbol of In on the periodic table of the elements and has an atomic number of 49. The rare strategic metal was discovered in 1863 by German chemists Ferdinand Reich and Theodor Richter. Indium has a melting point of 156.60 °C (313.88 °F) making it useful in many low melting point applications.

The rare strategic metal is primarily mined in China, Bolivia and Canada. The top refiners of Indium are China, Korea, Japan, Canada, Japan and Belgium. The total refined amount annually is approximately 500 mt. China controls 97% percent of production. If we do not find alternatives to the current mining techniques Indium will continue to be on the critical list of rare strategic metals. Indium is primarily a bi-product of zinc mining. Mining companies are working on ways to extract Indium from tin and copper mining to expand the sources of the metal. At current consumption rates there could be a crisis in the supply of indium in the next ten years. According to the British Geological Survey, indium scores a 6.5 out of 10 on the critical metals list in 2011.

Indium has many uses in the world of technology. Here is a list of the most prominent uses.

  1. Transparent conductive coating (Touchscreens on Mobile Phones and Ipads) SHARP IGZO
  2. CIGS (Copper Indium Gallium Selenide) Solar Panels
  3. LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes)
  4. LCDs (Liquid Crystal Displays)
  5. Low Pressure Sodium Lamps
  6. Control rods for nuclear reactors as an alloy with silver and cadmium
  7. Thermal interface material

Sharp electronics out of Japan just officially announced that they will begin producing IGZO (Indium Gallium Zinc Oxide) screens for Apple (Aapl). It has been rumored for almost a year that the IGZO screens would be used in all future Apple products. These screens boast double the resolution of current screens. Currently Sharp will be producing three screens for Apple. These screens can save up to 90% in power consumption over conventional screens.

  1. 7in tablet screens 1280X800 pixels resolution (217 pixels per inch)
  2. 10in notebook screens 2560X1600 pixels resolution (300 pixels per inch)
  3. 32in LCD screen 3840X2160 pixels resolution (140 pixels per inch)

The first product from Apple that will integrate the new screens is the new Apple Smart TV. Apple has reportedly invested $1.2 Billion in one of Sharp´s manufacturing facilities in China. Sharp expects that the demand for IGZO screens will increase. Over 50% of all indium used is in the manufacturing of LCD displays.

The other technology that is expected to put pressure on the indium market is the CIGS (Copper Indium Gallium Selenide) solar panels. Currently CIGS solar panels are the most efficient solar panels on the market. CIGS solar panels can be molded to fit many uses. Companies are designing them to integrate into roofing, glass and metals. Could you imagine what the future holds when buildings turn into solar panels? Companies like Solar Frontier, MiaSole and Avancis are providing the world with CIGS solar panels. According to Lux Research out of Boston the market for CIGS PV installations could more than double by 2015 to $2.315 Billion.

The excitement around the indium market is palpable. If you are a stock trader then the companies above are your best option. If you are looking for a commodities position then you should contact the team at Swiss Metal Assets and store some indium along with other metals in Switzerland. The rare strategic metal is poised to have a strong decade.

 By: Randy Hilarski - The Rare Metals Guy

Molybdenum the Metal with Few Substitutes


Rare Industrial Metal - Molybdenum

Recently molybdenum has been in the news. China Molybdenum has announced that it will be launching an IPO on the Shanghai exchange later in the year. Swiss Metal Assets has also decided to add Molybdenum to its, ¨Construction and Engineering¨, basket of metals joining tantalum, tungsten, chromium, zirconium and cobalt.

Molybdenum is a refractory metal with the symbol of Mo on the periodic table of the elements and an atomic number of 42. This rare strategic metal was discovered in 1778 by a Swedish scientist Carl Wilhelm Scheele. Molybdenum has the sixth highest melting point of all elements. With a melting point of 2,623°C (4,753°F) only tungsten, rhenium, carbon, osmium and tantalum boast a higher melting point.

The largest producer of molybdenum is China followed by Chile, United States, Peru and Canada. Molybdenum is primarily a bi-product of copper and tungsten mining with a few mines producing it as a principal ore. Total world production is approximately 230,000 metric tons per year according to the USGS (United States Geological Survey).

The use of molybdenum is extensive. There are very few substitutes for the metal. This keeps the demand high. Molybdenum has an extensive list of uses. The top use is in alloys which uses about 70% of all the metal available each year.

Here is a list of the uses of Molybdenum:

  1. Alloys in construction
  2. Superalloys in aviation and rocketry
  3. Lubricants for high temperature applications
  4. Catalysts
  5. Alloy with steel to make stainless steel
  6. Pigments
  7. Electronics
  8. X-ray tube components
  9. Applications to protect against heat
  10. Nuclear industry
  11. Solar industry as an electrode material in CIGS (Copper, Indium, Gallium and Selenide) Panels

The future of Molybdenum looks bright with the continued expansion of the green economy around the world. The solar industry growth will continue to use significantly more of the rare metal in CdTe (Cadmium Telluride) panels and the CIGS panels. The market for CIGS solar panels are projected to double by 2015. This will put significant pressure on the molybdenum market as well as the rest of the rare strategic metals.

By: Randy Hilarski - The Rare Metals Guy

What Should Silver and Gold Investors do?

Today there was an article on CNBC telling us that the Bull market in silver is finished. Last week we heard that the Bull market was finished in Gold. What is an investor to do with all the noise around us? When silver was approaching $50 in June 2011 the media was happy to tell its viewers and readers to buy. It is very difficult to focus on the end game when the media continues to get it wrong.

The public keeps falling for the same trick year after year. Peter Schiff, Congressman Ron Paul and Marc Faber all said that the real estate bubble would burst while the media laughed at them. Today we have the media telling us that it is ok to bring our hard earned currency back into the stock market. Does all seem well to you? My gut feeling is telling me that something is terribly wrong with the system and that the risk of a serious crisis is still a possibility.

I would like to share with you my approach to precious metals investing. My approach may seem ultra conservative, but it has worked for almost a decade. Physical metal in my possession or 100% allocated in my name in a private vault is the only way to go for my family. I do not worry about the ups and downs of the silver and gold market. When it is time for a purchase, I do not try to time the market. When the cash is available I place an order. People ask me, ¨Randy why are you not worried about silver and gold crashing?¨ My reply is easy, do you really think that the governments around the world are going to show restraint when it comes to devaluing their currencies?

Here are a few reasons to not trust currencies.

  1. China has signed 16 currency trade agreements bypassing the US Dollar.
  2. Ben Bernanke and the Fed have announced that they want to continue to devalue the US Dollar.
  3. Trade wars, nations trying to keep their products cheap by devaluing their currencies, recently Brazil said the government will use this tactic.
  4. Governments around the world are devaluing currencies to pay off national debt, instead of raising taxes. Raising taxes is political suicide.

The other question people ask is, “when will you sell?¨. The answer to this question is a very personal one, but my approach is pretty simple. I have a set goal for the value of my metals. When the price reaches that value, I will then sell my silver and gold and buy real estate or possibly equities. For me the precious metals are a tool to build wealth. When I sell, I am just moving to a different asset class. When I can buy a $100k house for 600 ounces of silver it will be time for me to sell. Similar to everyday life, if we don´t focus on set goals, we will accomplish very little. Even if it takes another five years for silver and gold to reach my price goals I am okay with it.

Will there be times in the climb forward, when silver and gold take large price drops? Of course there will be, but these are the times when the market just gave you the opportunity to buy more precious metals at a discount. I am just an average guy who wants to be able to sleep good at night. I don´t want to be worrying whether or not my call or put options are in the money. So if you want peace of mind, please do not listen to the media, focus on your goals and you will be ok.

 By: Randy Hilarski - The Rare Metals Guy

Rhenium the Rarest of Rare Strategic Metals


This element has an atomic number of 75 and a symbol of Re on the periodic table of the elements. Rhenium is found in the earth’s crust at a concentration of approximately 1 ppm (parts per billion). The name rhenium comes from the Latin Rhenus meaning Rhine. This rare strategic metal was discovered in Germany in 1925 by Walter Noddack, Otto Berg and Ida Tacke hence the name Rhenium named after the river Rhine. The metal was the last stable element to be discovered. It is considered a transition metal.

Rhenium is so rare that is not directly mined. It is a by-product of copper and molybdenum mining. To put it in perspective the team at GE (General Electric), put this together.

“It takes, on Average, approximately 120 metric tons (264,554 pounds) or the equivalent weight of 44 Cadillac Escalade SUV´s- of copper ore to produce 1 ounce of rhenium- or the equivalent of five U.S. quarter coins.”

Total world production of Rhenium is between 40 and 50 metric tons per year. The top producers are Chile, United States, Kazakhstan and Peru. Recycling Rhenium also provides approximately 10 metric tons to the annual supply.

Rhenium is so important to industry because it has the third highest melting point of all elements. Tungsten and Carbon are the only elements with higher melting points. Rhenium has a few uses but 70% of all that is used per year, is used in the aviation industry. Rhenium is used in High temperature superalloys. The largest users of Rhenium in industry are Rolls Royce, General Electric and Pratt & Whitney. These companies use up to 6% rhenium content in the nickel-based superalloys in their jet engines. The strategic metal is used in such aircraft engines as the F-15, F-16, F-22 and the F-35. This metal is critical to national defense.

Uses of Rhenium

  1. Superalloys in combination with nickel, tungsten and molybdenum
  2. Superconductors
  3. Thermocouples in combination with tungsten for measuring temperatures up to 2200°C
  4. Filaments for mass spectrographs and ion gauges
  5. Photoflash lamps for photography
  6. Treating liver cancer

The continuing rise in demand of the strategic metal has put pressure on the supply side. Over the last few years the price of Rhenium has been rising steadily. This has forced companies like General Electric to find more creative ways to recycle the element. Investors have also been buying the metal and storing it through companies like Swiss Metal Assets in their Defense basket of metals. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for rhenium and the other rare strategic metals.

 By: Randy Hilarski - The Rare Metals Guy

Sentenced to Debtor Prison in America


Recently the Senate passed an amendment unanimously that was attached to a transportation bill. This amendment makes it legal for the IRS, (Internal Revenue Service), to ask the State Department to revoke or limit the passports of U.S. taxpayers.

The taxpayers must owe more than $50,000 to the US treasury in back taxes. The debt must also be in the levy or lien stage of the process. Only two other nations have similar rules in place, China and the United Arab Emirates. In China you can be put to death for not paying taxes to the state.

Guess who was behind this amendment? None other than the Senator from Nevada, Harry Reid. People have many legitimate reasons why they fall behind in taxes. Harry Reid has shown once again why he is not on the side of the people who elected him.

Not paying your taxes has always been a crime in the United States. The difference now is that the court does not have to show that a person willfully is failing to pay their taxes. This is a huge difference. Now all the IRS has to do is decide to send your info to the State Department and you are not allowed to leave.

So please if you are behind on your taxes seek the advice of a tax attorney. The other option is to seek an alternative passport. The process might take some time so I recommend getting started. I have friends who have started the process of acquiring a Panama passport. If you are of Italian, Irish or Polish ancestry you may also qualify in those countries. You can also apply for residency in some countries like Uruguay and Chile after you have been living there for some time.

Please do not wait until it is too late, as we can see the rules can change suddenly and you could be sentenced to your own version of debtor´s prison within the United States.

 By: Randy Hilarski - The Rare Metal Guy

Could This Emerging Financial Alliance Kill the U.S. Dollar?


A world-shaking event occurred this week in the global financial arena, and its impact will be felt for years to come. It will yank the wind straight out of the U.S. dollar’s sails and force a fundamental de-valuation of assets down to emerging-market levels.

Five leading nations — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — are starting their own financial system with a development bank funded exclusively by their nations.

They aim to establish an easy convertibility of currency (the real, ruble, rupee, renminbi and rand, respectively) and a focus on building long-term business relationships among themselves.

This isn’t just some emerging-market version of the euro zone. These up-and-coming economic leaders are opening the doors of opportunity for emerging-market companies that are positioned to challenge the global giants in their respective industries.

As an investor, you can’t afford to ignore this friendly meeting of the BRICS. (Note the fairly recent addition of the “S” with South Africa.) Here are three reasons why these countries are banking on a declining U.S. dollar and lessening U.S. influence … and why it may benefit you to do the same in the very near future!

Reason No. 1 : With this, the BRICS are set to assume pole position in global financial governance.

BRICS nations represent nearly half the world’s population. Two of them are already among the top five economies in terms of purchasing power parity. (That is, an “exchange rate” of sorts as measured by the amount of money needed to buy the same goods/services in different countries). Four are in the top 10.

The plan strengthens financial cooperation among the BRICS’ development banks. This comes as leaders from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa are seeking a bigger say in running the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral bodies to match their rising economic heft.

But these are not all investment-grade countries that can issue bonds to fund a new bank. One suggested solution is to dedicate a proportion of BRICS members’ foreign reserves to a trust fund that would back-stop the borrowed capital.

In the case of the World Bank, the total paid-up capital is around 10% while the rest is AAA-rated, “callable” capital. To enhance the creditworthiness further, existing multilateral banks and other Western countries could also be given minority stakes.

If you consider that these five countries now hold over $4 trillion in foreign currency reserves, the creation of this type of bank could mean some very serious contributions of capital. And this is clearly going to make these fast-growing countries, well, grow even faster!

Already, The IMF projects 2012 economic growth at 3% in Brazil; 3.3% in Russia; 7% in India; 8.2% in China; and 2.5% in South Africa. In contrast, the U.S. growth this year will be 1.8% while the 17-nation euro area will shrink by 0.5%, according to the IMF estimates released last month.

And trading in local currencies will strike a blow at the U.S. dollar and euro as a reserve currency, increasing the role of China’s, Brazil’s India’s and even Russia’s currencies relative to the U.S. dollar and the euro. This in turn would make it even easier for these countries to sign more-favorable transactions with other parties that would have normally demanded dollars.

Reason No. 2 : This will also have real production and political effects.

Don’t assume this is just trade finance for only agricultural and natural-resource products.

Brazil will make a special effort to show that the country’s economy is more than just commodities and raw materials. Some of the businessmen traveling with the president will be from cutting-edge technology corporations.

Reuters is indicating that Brazil may be about to choose France’s Rafale fighter jet as the new aircraft for its military — at least a $4 billion deal from this emerging-market player that’s eager to become an economic superpower. If the deal goes through, it will come directly on the tails of India’s decision to buy 126 of the company’s warplanes.

Speaking of India, its relationship with the U.S. administration is better than ever before. However, there’s no guarantee that differences on some sensitive issue in the future won’t push the U.S. toward sanctions that could curtail this development or create other support issues. A conflict with Pakistan could be an example. Likewise, Brazil’s clear support for Cuba and Venezuela could at some point create similar problems if they selected the U.S. option.

More importantly, though, it’s extremely interesting that India and Brazil are discussing a military accord, since each country could complement each other in the industrial sector.

In addition to modernizing its fighter jet fleet, Brazil is seeking to obtain a transfer of software technology for the nuclear submarine that it is planning to build in partnership with France. And India officially rejoined the nuclear submarine operators’ club when the Russian manufacturers handed over to an Indian crew the Nerpa, in Russia’s Far East.

These and other proposed intra-BRICS initiatives like improving global governance will not only contribute to enhanced intra-BRICS trade and investments, but they would also facilitate growth in difficult economic times for these countries.

Reason No. 3: It’s no surprise — the winners are the top emerging-market industrial and technology companies.

These developments and the new financial arrangement will create many new investment opportunities for investors that did not exist before AND strengthen some that are already available.

Keep in mind, though, that this financial alliance won’t be the easiest thing to implement. There will be points where these countries disagree.

For example, under intense pressure from the Russian government, India may consider working out a solution to grant some relief to Sistema Shyam TeleServices Ltd. According to official sources, SSTL’s case may be treated differently from others whose licenses were ordered to be canceled because it is the sole operator based on CDMA communication technology.

If you would like to follow these stories, I encourage you to take my Emerging Market Winners newsletter service for a risk-free test drive. As a member, you can easily follow the growing list of public companies that will benefit from this tectonic shift in focus and resources among the world’s fastest-growing emerging economies.

Best wishes,


Rudy Martin, editor of Emerging Market Winners, is widely recognized as an authority on stock and ETF investing. With more than 25 years of investing experience, Rudy started his investment career by co-managing a $2 billion private equity portfolio for Transamerica. He also served as an analyst for DeanWitter and Fidelity Investments, and research director of a quantitative research firm that is now part of Recently he has been providing his investment ideas directly to a select list of global hedge funds as Managing Director of Latin Capital Management, an institutional money management firm with more than $180 million in assets under management. For more information on Emerging Market Winners, click here.



The No-Brainer

Vancouver, B.C. — The guys at Swiss Metal Assets should relax a bit. They make an easy sell difficult because they want you to know all of what they’re up to. Not necessary. Here is the thing:

When you buy into the SLV or the GLD, what do you really end up owning? Simply this: a bank’s promise that somewhere in its bowels it will find a way to redeem the paper promise it made to you when you gave it your hard-earned currency to bet on the price of silver or gold. In other words, squat.

Swiss Metal Assets is a wholly different critter. They aren’t in the business of selling promises. You get the same exposure to metal prices as you do with SLV or GLD or any of the other bankster outfits, but with a pleasant wrinkle. You actually own the metal. And it’s stored next to the Pope’s gold stash in a duty-free vault in the Kanton of Zurich, Switzerland. Your name is on it, and is vouchsafed for by the Swiss government. When you place your bet on an ounce of silver with SMA, your name goes on that physical ounce and you can go get it in about 48 hours, because that’s how long it takes to unlock the doors. Or you can sell it and collect the proceeds through a bank of your choosing, in a currency of your choosing.

SMA is based in Panama, which is a good thing. China has told the United Snakes to keep their hands off Panama as China is heavily invested in the third ditch through the canal. China does not want a dust-up with the USA any more than the United Snakes wants one with China. We all need quiet banking. So for now, Panama is the safest place to park your money.

Swiss Metals will also hook you up with differently-weighted baskets of strategic and critical metals. Your call as to how to load them, and my understanding is that you can get in for 5 grand or less. Gee, where to put my trust? A bankster-loaded SLV or GLD, or a little account in Switzerland with my name on the key?

By: David Bond

How feasible is a fair-trade cell phone?


Here’s a simple solution to the controversy over working conditions in the foreign factories cranking out our gadgets: fair-trade electronics.

Give consumers alternatives they can feel good about buying - devices sourced and assembled in a fair, safe and green manner. Then let the market decide whether it values worker rights over cheap devices. The manufacturer that takes the gamble could own a niche in a market rife with conscientious young customers.

Well, it sounds like a simple solution, anyway.

The more I researched the issue and talked to supply chain and fair-trade experts, the more complicated things became.

For starters, no such designation exists for electronics today and it would require buy-in from the industry to establish one, said Heather Franzese, director of new business at Fair Trade USA in Oakland.

Businesses have to want to stamp their products with such declarations to differentiate them in the marketplace. Unlike segments of the food and apparel sectors, however, tech firms have displayed little interest in doing so. Typically it takes a critical mass of consumer and media pressure before industries move in this direction - and it seems we’re not yet there.

But perhaps the thorniest problem comes in determining what fair trade means. Ultimately the standards are subjective and somewhat arbitrary. How do you determine a fair wage in a poor nation with few other employment options? How many hours are too many hours? What qualifies as safe enough? Does “underage” mean 18, 17 or 16

A particular challenge for electronics is determining what parts of the industry’s long supply chain falls under those standards. Depending on how you count, there are hundreds or thousands of components in the average smart phone, using materials sourced from around the globe.

Auditing minerals

Should we hold companies responsible for minerals that might have changed hands five times before arriving at a smelting facility? Can we realistically audit the origins of all those materials?

The answer may simply be no.

“Everyone would like to see a phone that comes from places where everyone is treated fairly, but in practice, I think the supply chain is so global and so complex that it’s virtually impossible to confirm 100 percent,” said Rick Pierson, an analyst at IHS Global Insight.

Take the tantalum capacitor, a component of circuits that holds an electric charge. There are more than 450 in an iPhone, according to IHS.

Some estimates say 20 percent of the world’s tantalum comes from the Congo, where its sale has financed militias that have committed atrocities over the last 15 years, including mass murder, rape and mutilation, according to various reports. These rebels have forced miners to dig up minerals for a pittance in conditions that make Chinese factories look like Google’s corporate campus.

Major volumes of other minerals critical for electronics - like tin, tungsten and gold - are produced under similar conditions throughout Central Africa.

In 2010, Steve Jobs addressed the complexity of tracking these materials in an e-mail to a customer.

“We require all of our suppliers to certify in writing that they use conflict few (sic) materials,” he wrote. “But honestly there is no way for them to be sure. Until someone invents a way to chemically trace minerals from the source mine, it’s a very difficult problem.”

And there are other complexities.

Human-rights groups like the Enough Project have pushed companies to stop using conflict materials in their products, ultimately helping to insert a provision into the Dodd-Frank financial reform law that mandates companies disclose when they buy conflict materials.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has yet to implement the rules, but the fact they’re coming has already led to big changes in the region - for better and worse.

A 2011 opinion piece in the New York Times called the law a catastrophe, saying smelting factories have responded by refusing to buy minerals from eastern Congo, even from legitimate suppliers.

“I heard from scores of artisanal miners and small-scale producers who used to make a few dollars a day digging ore,” freelance writer David Aronson said. “Paltry as it may seem, this income was a lifeline.”

But Aaron Hall, associate director of research at Enough Project, said that companies are figuring it out. He said that Motorola and Kemet, which makes capacitors, have set up systems that allow them to monitor and track materials. Meanwhile, the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition, whose members include IBM, Dell and Apple, launched a Conflict Free Smelter Assessment Program to identify facilities that aren’t using conflict minerals.

There are two points worth emphasizing here: One is that the industry is making some real changes, at least in certain parts of the supply chain.

The other is that fair trade doesn’t always come down to a simple moral choice. There are sometimes steep trade-offs and difficult questions. What’s the greater good: providing work to the desperately poor in the Congo, or preventing money from falling into the hands of warlords?

The final uncertainty surrounding the feasibility of fair-trade electronics is the most important one: Would enough consumers buy them?

On this question, there was a perfect split in my interviews between business experts, who said no, and advocacy groups, who said yes.

“The template is there and the world is waiting,” said Jeffrey Ballinger, executive director of labor group Press for Change.

But tablets and smart phones are volume businesses, meaning companies have to sell huge quantities of each short-lived version to make the numbers pencil out. A fair-trade stamp alone may not line up the buyers Ballinger speaks of, whose identities are often as wrapped up in their tech savviness as their political consciousness. To have any chance of success, the products would have to be technically comparable - without being far more expensive.

Big change in cost

In its recent exposé of working conditions at Chinese plants producing Apple products, the Times said various experts estimated building iPhones in the United States would add up to $65 to each device. But that doesn’t address the unsavory origins of the phones’ components - and doing so would surely raise costs higher still.

“Will people pay a social premium? Sure, some people would, but not enough to justify it,” said John Morgan, a business professor at UC Berkeley. “It still won’t make it economically viable.”

None of this is meant to argue that companies should get a free pass - or that we shouldn’t demand U.S. businesses use their clout to raise labor standards around the world.

It’s only to say that there aren’t any simple solutions to complex problems.

By: James Temple


China angers the world as battle for rare earth metals escalates


Last week, the EU, US and Japan formally asked the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to look at China’s export restriction on rare earth metals. Lawyers believe the case will run and run.

The 17 rare earth metals, including dysprosium and neodymium, are essential components in precision-guided missiles Photo: Getty Images

The 17 rare earth metals, including dysprosium and neodymium, are essential components in modern technology such as iPhones, wind turbines, halogen lights and even precision-guided missiles. China produces more than 95pc of these minerals and it has imposed a quota restriction on their export.

EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht said China’s export quotas and export duties give Chinese companies an unfair competitive advantage.

“China’s restrictions on rare earths and other products violate international trade rules and must be removed,” Mr De Gucht said. “These measures hurt our producers and consumers in the EU and across the world, including manufacturers of pioneering hi-tech and ‘green’ business applications.”

Rare earth metals are not rare, despite the moniker. Cerium, for example, is more common in the Earth’s crust than copper or lead. It is the 25th most common element of the Periodic Table.

However, the problem is that they are not really found in mineable deposits in many areas. They also tend to be associated with the radioactive elements, which makes the mining process costly and potentially environmentally damaging.

The WTO has been asked to arbitrate in a dispute settle request, which is the first step before a full trade case.

“This will be a very fact-intensive case,” Konstantinos Adamantopoulos, partner at law firm Holman Fenwick Willan, said. He believes the case could run for some time.

The country has imposed a quota on the export of rare earths. However, because of the economic backdrop, the quota has not been met.

Its rare earth exports totalled 14,750 tons during the first 11 months of 2011, accounting for only 49pc of the total quota. China set the 2012 rare earth export quota at roughly the same level as 2011.

“China will argue that the quota is so generous that it is not a quota at all. They will point to the fact that last year the quota was not used up,” Mr Adamantopoulos explained.

Then there’s the issue of a restriction on exports. “Goods may not be subject to export restrictions. This is not allowed under the WTO,” he said.

“The question will be: is the 42pc tax on exported metals a quantitative export restriction or is it an export duty?” Mr Adamantopoulos said. “The WTO does not prohibit duties, but says they must agree a multilaterally negotiated solution. The WTO hates ‘unilaterally’ when it comes to tariffs.”

“As a second line of defence, China may invoke special clauses in the WTO rules,” Mr Adamantopoulos noted.

These clauses mean production can be restricted to protect the environment or to ensure security of supply to the domestic industry.

“The US used this in its oil trading agreement in NAFTA and China may wish to put forward such an argument,” said Mr Adamantopoulos.

Indeed, it already has. China needs to limit environmental damage and conserve scarce resources, Liu Weimin, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said. “We think the policy is in line with WTO rules. Despite such huge environmental pressure China has been taking measures to maintain rare earth exports. China will continue to supply rare earths to the international market.”

China plans to consolidate its rare earths industry into two to three companies, according to the Shanghai Securities News, which cited Miao Wei, minister of industry and information technology (MIIT). This is ahead of the country’s plan to develop new rare earth materials to boost manufacturing capacity.

China will “make full use of its rare earth resources to expand the industrial scale of new materials made with rare earth”, said a MIIT publication issued last month.

Because this battle is set to drag on, it is essential that countries other than China start to produce more of these metals. Until then, we are likely to have to live with Chinese restrictions.

By: Garry White and Emma Rowley


Rare Earths Supply at Risk Due to Growing Shift to Green Energy


Rare Earth Elements

Any global effort to save and prolong the life of Mother Earth, such as investing into and inventing technologies that use clean fuel and green energy are most welcome. But with the world still yet to determine a suitable, dependable and reliable source of rare earths outside of China, these efforts could prove detrimental to the rare earths supply chain.

Production of two rare earths metals, dysprosium and neodymium, critical components used to aid technologies in manufacturing wind turbines to generate electricity and make electric vehicles, have been found to have increased by only a few percentage points per year, according to Versus projected global demand seen to grow by 700 per cent for neodymium and 2,600 per cent for dysprosium over the next 25 years, it is believed the supply of the precious metal could not keep up given that the two metals are most especially available almost exclusively in China.

Citing a publication in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology authored by Dr Randolph E. Kirchain, inventions of green technologies would definitely carry out a proposed stabilisation in atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, at 450 parts per million.

However, to meet the objectives of these green technologies would mean a parallel growth in the supply of rare earths.

“To meet that need, production of dysprosium would have to grow each year at nearly twice the historic growth rate for rare earth supplies,” Mr Kirchain said.

“Although the rare earths supply base has demonstrated an impressive ability to expand over recent history, even the rare earths industry may struggle to keep up with that pace of demand growth,” the author said.

In order to keep up, shortfalls in future supply could be mitigated “through materials substitution, improved efficiency, and the increased reuse, recycling, and use of scrap.”

Rare earth metals are essential for clean energy technologies, such as PVs; hybrid and electric vehicles; high-efficiency wind turbines; smart grid technologies; compact fluorescent lights; fiber optics; lasers and hard disk drives, defense guidance and control systems; global positioning systems; and advanced industrial, military and outdoor recreation water treatment technology.

Rare earth metals are not really rare. It is the mining procedure and operations that make them rare. Unfortunately, majority of the world’s rare earth metals, about 97 per cent, are mined in China, which have considerably slashed export quotas in 2010 and 2011 for domestic consumption and manufacturing purposes.

These “economically important metals are at risk of supply disruption due to human factors such as geopolitics, resource nationalism, along with events such as strikes and accidents,” said, citing a report by the British Geological Survey.

In December 2011, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), in its 2011 Critical Materials Strategy, said “many clean energy technologies depend on raw materials with potential supply risks” as it assessed the 16 elements considered most critical.

Dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, europium and yttrium were included in the short-term critical supply list. On the medium term were lithium and tellurium.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The NASDAQ OMX Group, Inc.

By: Esther Tanquintic-Misa




What do diphtheria, isotopes and garlic breath have in common?

Metallic tellurium, diameter 3.5 cm. Image: anonymous (Creative Commons Attribution 1.0 Generic license.)

This week’s element is tellurium, which has the symbol Te and the atomic number, 52. Its name comes from the Latin, tellus, for “earth”. Despite its name, this lustrous, pale grey metalloid is quite rare on earth, rarer than it is elsewhere in the universe, in fact. The reason for its comparative rarity is attributed to the formation of H2Te, a volatile gas that was lost to space during the early formation of earth.

Tellurium is used in a number of industrial and commercial applications. It is alloyed with stainless steel and copper to improve their machinability and tellurium is used as a semiconductor, cadmium telluride is used in solar panels because it has the highest efficiency for electricity generation, tellurium speeds the curing of rubber and renders it less susceptible to aging and to the softening effects of oil, and tellurium oxide, TeO, is used in some rewritable CDs and DVDs.

When I was a microbiologist, one of the many types of growth media that I used to diagnose human pathogens was an agar made with serum and potassium tellurite (K2TeO3). This agar is used specifically to diagnose the human respiratory pathogen, Corynebacterium diphtheriae. Tellurite agar is a selective medium because tellurium inhibits growth of a variety of bacteria, and it is a differential medium because Corynebacterium will reduce tellurite to metallic tellurium, producing characteristic black or brownish-black colonies on the otherwise pale straw-coloured and transparent agar.

In humans and other animals, tellurium has no known biological role, but the body does metabolise it to create the volatile gaseous compound, dimethyl telluride, (CH3)2Te, which is excreted in sweat and exhaled, and is the source of a charmingly potent “garlic breath”, similar to what happens with selenium ingestion. (Which makes me wonder why don’t any of these elements make people smell minty or fruity? Why must we always smell like a litter box?) I should point out that taking vitamin C can reduce these odoriferous effects.

Tellurium can be toxic if ingested in high enough quantities. *

Chemically speaking, the discovery of tellurium caused the inventor of the periodic table of elements, Dmitri Mendeleev, a lot of headaches. This is because tellurium has an atomic mass of 127.6 whilst the element that comes after it, iodine, is lighter with an atomic weight of 126.9. Mendeleev concluded that the atomic mass for one of these two elements must be wrong because tellurium clearly preceded iodine in the periodic table. After 50 years of headbanging frustration and effort by a number of chemists to accurately determine the atomic mass of these two elements, the concept of chemical isotopes was discovered. Isotopes are variant forms of an element that maintain the element’s characteristic number of protons, but contain variable numbers of neutrons. As it turns out, the most common isotopes of tellurium have atomic masses of 128 and 130, whilst iodine’s most common isotope has an atomic mass of 127. Thus, tellurium has an average atomic mass of 127.6 whilst iodine has an average atomic mass of 126.9.

Here’s our favourite chemistry professor telling us more about tellurium:

* [added 1430 on 2 March 2012] Tellurium is “[h]ighly toxic, may be fatal if inhaled, swallowed or absorbed through skin. Avoid any skin contact. Effects of contact or inhalation may be delayed.”. Sodium tellurite is also toxic: “The material is both an oral and dermal toxic hazard. The material is toxic by ingestion. Oral ingestion of tellurium compounds is generally regarded as extremely toxic. The probable oral lethal dose is 5-50 mg/kg or between 7 drops and 1 teaspoonful for a 70 kg (150 pound) person. Tellurium compounds are regarded as super toxic for skin exposures.”



Silver set to shine after escaping India’s budget clutches


While gold’s southward journey continued for the third straight day in Mumbai Monday, investors showed a keen interest in buying one kilo silver bars also known as `chausar’ given the excise duty exemption.


Silver, the poor man’s gold, has turned out to be the winner in India’s budgetary excise duty cuts by escaping the attention of the Finance Minister. Investors in India are keen to push silver above the recent channel high with traders insisting that it will be more than speculation that will drive demand for the white metal.

“Silver has clearly been exempted for a reason,” said Prithviraj Kothari, president of the Bombay Bullion Association. “Out of $50 billion worth of imports of precious metals into India, silver imports were just $4 billion, while that for gold was the other $46 billion,” he said.

On Friday, India’s Finance Minister exempted branded silver jewellery from excise duty. Silver coins of purity 99.9% and above were also exempted from excise duty. However, the excise duty on refined gold was doubled from 1.5% to 3%.

Kothari was of the opinion that silver coins and silver bars, called `chausar’ in the local lingo and among bullion traders across the country, would soon sell like hot cakes. “There is not much demand for silver jewellery among Indian investors. Most go for high value silver coins or for a 1 kilo silver bar. The latter is expected to fly off the shelves now and investor interest would surely be pushed higher as a consequence of the double whammy on gold in the budget,” he added.

Kothari added that the price of silver was bound northward since investor interest had shifted given its usage in solar panels. Panel makers consume about 12% of the world’s supply of silver, the material in solar cells that conducts electricity.

Silver paste is used in 90% of all crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells, which are the most common solar cells. Though the solar industry is not the largest consumer of silver, it is a growing market that could give silver producers a boost, say traders.

“It is something whose time has come. Most of the markets that silver serves follow traditional supply and demand economics and therefore competition is based on price, product line, and service.  In the case of a hyper growth industry such as the photovoltaic industry, silver is bound to streak ahead,” added Kothari.

The rise in solar power is arguably the most significant development for silver demand in recent years. A GFMS report noted that over the last decade, the sector’s offtake had climbed rapidly, soaring from less than 2 million ounces to an estimated 50 million ounces in 2010. In 2011, demand was expected to reach nearly 70 million ounces, an increase of 40% year on year. So analysts expect demand from this segment to keep growing.

In precious metals, silver was down 0.65% in the international markets at $32.36 an ounce, bringing the gold to silver ratio, which is the number of ounces of silver needed to buy one ounce of gold, to around 51.0, the highest for two weeks and reflecting silver’s underperformance relative to gold.

In India, a depreciating currency has also played spoilsport. The Indian rupee has tumbled by 16% against the US dollar. Some traders insist that as silver was left out of the latest budget tax increase, it may benefit from speculative plays and the spread between gold and silver should narrow.

“Silver has remained outside the double tax on other precious metals. But one should not forget that recently the silver import duty was raised to 6% of the value to discourage imports and enable better utilisation of forex reserves,” said Sunder Raghavan, bullion trader.

“In purely psychological terms, the news is likely to weigh on the price of gold and in the current market could help ensure that the gold price does not increase significantly in the near future,” Commerzbank analysts said in a note, adding that following a rollercoaster ride in 2011, rising industrial demand coupled with growing investor interest should prompt a sustainable increase in the price of silver this year.

In the case of gold though, the analysts have said, “This could lead to lower imports, which would remove an important crutch from the price of gold.”

Traders point out that silver has several industrial uses. “This year, it is estimated that global industrial demand for silver largely driven by India and China will increase by 30%, from 487 million ounces in 2010 to 624 million ounces. At a time like this, the Finance Minister excusing silver from its taxation basket is heady news,” said Udayan Murti, bullion analyst with a broking house.

Kothari was of the opinion that though India imported around 4,800 tonnes of silver last year, this year imports would hinge around 3000 to 3500 tonnes. “Last year there was a lot of consumption. With inflation on the rise this year, there is not much savings left in the hands of individuals. Though the `chausar’ bars are still a hot property amongst the regulars, the budgetary proposal to fully exempt branded silver jewellery from excise duty will result in an increase in the number of branded silver jewellery items. Currently, there are only a few brands in that segment. So, that will be one segment that is bound to grow now,” he added.

Traders and analysts added that silver has been the underestimated bullion with immense savings potential that may help in capital formation for future growth. “This (exempting it from budgetary tax) seems to be a welcome step to realise its untapped potential. Moreover, it has a broader reach across income groups compared to other precious metals, because of pricing,” said Murti.

By: Shivom Seth


Zirconium Dental Implants – A Ceramic Alternative to Titanium


Usually, dental implants are made from titanium or a titanium based alloy. An implant consists of a metal rod, an abutment and crown and serves ideally as an artificial tooth.

However, those who would rather not have a metal product like titanium in their mouths or have concerns about possible risks of titanium can opt for zirconium dental implants.

Titanium – Associated Concerns

Titanium is said to be generally safe, but some doubts have been raised with regard to the use of titanium for medical purposes.

Titanium might slowly degrade and increase the concentration of the metal in the bloodstream. Concerns exist regarding possible long term affects of titanium in the blood.

Though a rare phenomenon, titanium implants may be rejected by the patient’s immune system.

Some forms of titanium are said to have a harmful effect on health. For instance, titanium tetrachloride is associated with skin irritation. It is also said to cause severe damage to the lungs if inhaled.

The Zirconium Advantage

Zirconium dental implants behave just like Zirconium dental implant. Zirconium is a ceramic substance that is white in colour, flexible, strong and is ideal for use as dental implant material.

This material is reported to be highly resistant to corrosion and is considered by some to be a better implant material than titanium. Zirconium implants are suitable for osseointegration process (integration with the natural bone) and are easily accepted by the body.

They are ideal for those patients whose immune systems do not accept titanium implants. Zirconium implants are also credited with a slightly higher integration success rate than titanium implants.

Zirconium implants have excellent tensile strength, so they are more durable with less risk of breakage. Moreover, the material is also capable of holding up to drastic changes in temperature.

Zirconium implants are said to be ideal for the posterior teeth that are subject to heavier chewing forces. These implants are also perfect for patients who may have allergic reactions towards metals.

Being white in colour, zirconium implants have a definite advantage or aesthetics over titanium dental implants. These will be welcome to those patients who don’t like the thought of a dark coloured implant. Any possibility of a gray colour like that of titanium showing through the gums is ruled out with zirconium implants.

Zirconium Dental Implants – Drawbacks

Zirconium is a radioactive material and might contain radioactive isotopes. However, the implants made of this material give out only a minute level of radio activity and are certified to be non-dangerous by the manufacturers. It is mandatory for companies that manufacture these implants to declare the radiation levels of the zirconium used.

They are substantially more costly than the titanium variety. Being new products, they have yet to establish a successful track record like their titanium counterparts.

Zirconium dental implants are undoubtedly a valuable addition in the fields of implantology and cosmetic dentistry. They are excellent options in instances where titanium dental implants cannot be used.

Their durability and outstanding performance make them ideal tooth replacement alternatives. Moreover, they are a boon to patients who are concerned about issues such as a build-up of titanium in the bloodstream. It is important that specialist implant dentists provide all required information to the patient regarding zirconium implants, so that the patient can make a well informed choice.



Resistive RAM for next-generation nonvolatile memory


Since its introduction in 1988 by Toshiba1, NAND flash nonvolatile memory has undergone an unprecedented growth, becoming one of today’s technology drivers. Although NAND flash memory has scaled to 1x-nm feature sizes, shrinking cell sizes reduce the number of electrons stored on the floating gate. Resistive RAM (RRAM) provides an alternative. In this article, we review the main performance figures of hafnium-oxide (HfO2)-based RRAM cells4 from a scalability perspective, outlining their strengths as well as the main challenges ahead.

A NAND flash nonvolatile memory cell, usually a floating gate transistor, implements the memory function by charge stored on the floating gate. With a charge transfer mechanism onto/from the storage medium that relies on tunneling and a serial (string) architecture, NAND memory features high operating voltages (with associated chip area consumption for the on-chip voltage generation), rather long cell program/erase (P/E) times, and slow read-access times. These drawbacks are, however, compensated for by the very compact array architecture and extremely low energy-consumption-per-bit operation, which eventually enabled fabrication of high-density memory arrays, at low cost and with a chip storage capacity increasing impressively.

During its extraordinary evolution, NAND flash has often met seemingly insurmountable barriers. Technological, architectural, and design innovations complemented each other, however, enabling continued scaling. Nowadays, NAND flash memory seems to have found the way toward the realm of 1x-nm feature size, with major players fighting for each nanometer of cell shrinkage, not to mention for supremacy. Nevertheless, the scaling of cell size leads to gradual reduction of the number of electrons stored on the floating gate, with a projected number of less than 30 electrons for memorizing a (multilevel) cell state, for an assumed 15-nm feature size2.

Resistive RAM (RRAM), just like phase-change memory (PCM), is emerging as a disruptive memory technology, implementing memory function in a resistance (rather than stored charge), the value of which can be changed by switching between a low and a high level. Although the phenomenon of reversible resistance switching has been since the 1960s, recent extensive research in the field has led to the proposition of several concepts and mechanisms through which this reversible change of the resistance state is possible. The distinctive feature of most RRAM concepts3 consists of the localized, filamentary nature of a conductive path formed in an insulating material separating two electrodes (a metal-insulator-metal (MIM) structure), corresponding to the on-, low-resistance state. This attribute was immediately associated with a high scalability potential, beyond the limits currently predicted for flash memory.

Resistive memory structures

Even if many materials reported to date exhibit good resistive switching properties, the success of a future RRAM technology is critically dependent on the ability to integrate these materials/switching structures into a conventional, supporting baseline technology, with cost as a key success factor. Not surprisingly, fab-friendly and accessible materials such as HfO2, zirconium dioxide, titanium dioxide, tantalum dioxide/ditantalum pentoxide, etc, which showed resistive switching behavior, have received the highest attention.

A thin HfO2 dielectric film sandwiched between two metal electrodes was shown to have resistive switching properties, either uni- or bipolar, depending on the materials used as electrodes and on the method to deposit the active (oxide) film. The bipolar operation of HfO2, requiring voltages of opposite polarity to switch on/off the cell, is believed to be due to the formation of conductive paths (filaments) associated with presence of oxygen vacancies (VO), which can be ruptured/restored through oxygen/VO migration under electric field and/or locally enhanced diffusion. The bipolar operation of HfO2 is preferred for its increased immunity to disturbs and over reset. The formation of the filament (forming, or electroforming) is believed to take place along pre-existing weak spots in the oxide, for instance along the grain boundaries in case of a polycrystalline HfO2, which presumably have larger amount of defects and also a higher oxygen diffusivity compared to the bulk of the material.5,6

An alternative approach is to use a metal/oxide material system7 with a reactive (capping) metal, capable of chemically reducing the HfO2. Although a Hf/HfO2 system may seem an obvious choice, selection of hafnium as a cap layer is supported by thermodynamic considerations that indicate a low oxide formation energy, when reducing HfO2. A similar property is found for the titanium/HfO2 case. In the Hf/HfO2 system, hafnium acts as an oxygen buffer layer that allows, under electrical stimuli, the production of oxygen-deficient off-stoichiometric oxide, thus favoring formation of the switching filament. Furthermore, conventional physical vapor deposition (PVD) titanium nitride was used to define the bottom and top electrodes (BE/TE) in a crossbar-patterned configuration.

To achieve best flexibility and controllability of RRAM device operation, the resistive memory structure was connected serially with an nMOS transistor, which acts as a cell selector. Figure 1a shows a top view scanning-electron-microscopy (SEM) picture of a test structure, while high-resolution transmission-electron-microscopy (TEM) cross-sections of the structure along the main directions, visualizing the BE/TE are shown in figure 1b and figure 1c. The smallest fully functional working structures processed4, feature an effective area of around 10 x 10 nm2, defined by the BE width and by the width of the TE/Hf-cap tip resulting after the crossbar patterning.

Figure 1: Top SEM-view of a crossbar resistive element (a) and high-resolution TEM cross-sections of the bottom- (b) and top-electrode (c).

The oxide thickness is the main parameter determining the value of the forming voltage (VF), which is typically the highest voltage and needed only once, to get the RRAM cells ready for operation. In contrast, the Set (on-switching) and Reset (off-switching) voltages are lower and, in a common situation, do not depend on oxide thickness. This difference makes it possible that VF can be then reduced by thinning the oxide layer, without interfering with normal cell operation. Furthermore, aggressive oxide thinning may eventually lead to forming-free operation.

The Set/Reset (S/R) voltages, as well as the levels of the on/off states, turn out to be essentially independent not only of oxide thickness, but also of cell size. Although operating the cell in extreme conditions (i.e. with very deep Reset or strong Set switching) may turn these characteristics invalid, the common situation is consistent with the filamentary nature of the conductive path; furthermore, it supports the model of a partial rupture and restoration of the filament during device operation. Eventually, the oxide thickness corresponding to forming-free operation, confirmed experimentally to be in the range of 2 to 2.5 nm, is indicative of the extent of the ruptured portion of the conductive filament.

Electrical performance and reliability
Given the structure asymmetry induced by the presence of the hafnium layer, the RRAM cells are best operated in bipolar mode with positive polarity on TE for the Set and forming operations and with negative polarity on TE for the Reset operation. In this section, we will discuss the most important performance and reliability figures of the HfO2-based RRAM cells.

Switching speed
To measure switching speed, we used a pulsed operation mode, exemplified here for a Reset switching. Thus, stimuli were applied on the sourceline (SL) and wordline (WL) of the serial 1T1R (1-transistor, 1-resistor) test vehicle, while the response was monitored with a digital oscilloscope on a small series resistance attached to the cell bitline (BL; see figure 2a) . The switching was time-confined to a maximum duration given by the width of the SL pulse, i.e. 10 ns. We carefully designed the experimental setup to minimize the impact of the parasitic elements (e.g. capacitances), having a reasonably short system time constant. The resistive element, initially in the on-state, switches to the off-state quickly, leading to a decrease of the signal within just 3 to 4 ns (see figure 2b). When taking into account the impact of the testing environment on the collected waveform, the observed transition time duration gives a higher margin for the intrinsic switching time, which can be shorter.

Figure 2: Schematics of the device under test (DUT), with applied stimuli and collected response (a) and waveforms corresponding to a Reset switching (b), sampled with a LeCroy WavePro 740Zi 4GHz oscilloscope. The 10-ns SL pulse (blue color), which enables switching, in contained in the longer WL pulse (red color) used to open up the transistor’s channel. The Reset switching is confirmed by the read-out (RO) of the cell current, which changes from high value (on-state) before the SL applied pulse to low value (off-state) after the pulse.

On/off window & operating voltages
The on/off window easily exceeds a factor of 10, with modest (<1 V) voltages applied for both S/R operations. Using higher amplitude pulses and switching verification will improve the on/off window by at least two orders of magnitude, as well as enhancing the uniformity of the switching operations (see figure 3a), which may open up paths for multilevel operation.

Figure 3: Typical on/off window (expressed in read-out cell current) achievable with sub-3-V pulsed operation, with verify (a) and Reset pulse amplitude-duration voltage-time trade-off, showing no significant degradation when scaling cell size from 1 um2 down to 10 x 10 nm2 (b). Data are for an oxide film thickness of 10 nm. The dashed lines are guide for the eye. Similar conclusions hold for Set switching (not shown).

The voltage-time dilemma is a popular term used to express the limited ability of RRAM to display nonlinearity. This is however not specific to RRAM, but present in virtually all memory structures, which ideally need to on one hand allow for indefinitely long stability under no or low-electrical stimuli (for retention, read-out and disturbs immunity), while on the other hand providing fast change of state under operating stimuli (for P/E or S/R).

The S/R voltages required to operate these cells thus display the usual trade-off with time. Nevertheless, the pulse amplitude-time dependence shows that the cells can still be operated with voltages well below 3 V, even for pulses as short as 10 ns. Furthermore, in a comparison of large area cells (in the order of 1 um2) with smallest-size cells (of 10 x 10 nm2), the voltage-time characteristics maintain similarity (see figure 3b), which shows that we should expect no considerable performance degradation when considering aggressively scaled structures. Compared to NAND flash, RRAM has the benefits of low-operating voltages.

Reliability: retention & endurance
The usual 10 year requirement for NVM retention is met by most of the RRAM cells, with a median cell reaching this limit at an extrapolated temperature of around 100°C. As expected, retention turns out to be most critical for the on-state, where retention loss is attributed to filament dissolution. Retention improvement is possible through material optimization and careful sealing of the active region with oxygen-free layers.

Endurance tests performed on unoptimized samples showed cycling of at least 10 Mcycles in a single shot. The failure at the end of the tests was, however, recoverable with a stronger stimulus to “unlock” them from the stuck state, and cycled again with adjusted slightly stronger conditions. These facts suggest that careful balancing of the S/R test conditions, next to process improvement, may allow superior reliability and extended device lifetime, which can well exceed billion cycles, even on the smallest device sizes. This figure is far above the conventional requirement for flash memory, pinpointed to 100 kcycles, although reference value for data storage flash is commonly lowered down 10 kcycles, on arguments of practical, as well as economical nature associated with a commodity product.

Scalability, energy consumption, and cell array considerations
The data discussed so far provide evidence of RRAM operation on an effective area of nearly 10-x-10-nm2 without compromising any of the major performance or reliability figures. This size is the smallest reported to date, for HfO2-based RRAM cells and demonstrate cell scalability in the nanometer range, which is beyond scaling limits of NAND flash. Filament formation has been observed experimentally, for instance on TEM pictures, for metallic filaments, such as those formed in nitrous oxide RRAM.

Figure 4: Extracted filament size for 10-x-10-nm2 cells, operated with 10-ns pulse duration. The filament was asssumed cylindrical, with a saturated sub-stochiometric hafnia resistivity.8

In the cells under discussion here, conductive paths presumably formed by oxygen vacancies corresponding to locally lower fractions of oxygen content in the active oxide layer are hard to detect, due to resolution limits of the physical characterization methods. Oxygen-deficient HfO2, however, has a resistivity that correlates with the amount of oxygen-deficiency, but eventually saturates for highly deficient stable sub-oxides, at a value still significantly higher than that of metallic Hf.8 When combined with experimental electrical data corresponding to on-state (measured on the smallest 10 x 10 nm2 HfO2-based RRAM cells), this property allowed extracting the radius of an assumed-cylindrical filament, with a median value of nearly 1 nm. Although an estimate, this result suggests intrinsic scalability of the resistive memory element in the few-nanometer range.

One of the key features of NAND flash technology is the extremely low power required to write/erase a single cell, as it only involves very low (Fowler-Nordheim) tunneling currents. This translates, in spite of the need to use high P/E voltages, into a low energy used to operate a cell, even with the long specific cell P/E times, thus enabling a high throughput in NAND flash. RRAM, by contrast, works at much lower voltages and on/off switching is several orders of magnitude faster than for NAND cells. The current is, however, significantly larger and even if RRAM scores well in comparison with MRAM9 and PCM technologies10,11 there are concerns about the circuit level implications.

Figure 5: Benchmarking of HfO2-based RRAM in relation with existing (NAND flash) and other emerging technologies (MRAM, PCM). An improvement direction implying use of shorter pulses is identified experimentally.4

When we consider the switching energy per bit operation, RRAM is approaching the performance of NAND flash, given the actual peak current levels during switching as high as a few tens of microamps. Crossing below a 10-fJ-NAND flash border would require nanosecond switching speeds, or sub-microamp switching currents; paths to meeting these requirements are currently pursued.

RRAM has device-level characteristics that meet most of the nonvolatile memory requirements. It furthermore shows scalability potential in an area that is thought to be inaccessible to NAND flash. To be able to exploit these strengths at circuit/system level, RRAM must overcome cell read-out interference12 that may cause in erroneous read out of the (HRS) cell state, due to so-called sneak-current paths. Alleviation of this issue requires a bidirectional selector device. The control transistor in a 1T1R structure provides this functionality and it is, in fact, a potential solution for memory arrays in which density is not the main concern. For data storage applications, however, achieving highest memory density should aim at a cell footprint of around 4F2 (with F being the feature size), implementation of which will, most likely, require the use of a two-terminal selector device13 or a rectification function built into the memory element itself (self-rectifying resistive memory).  Research achievements in this direction, complemented by consideration of practical possibilities to increase effective density by using 3D architectures14 for meeting cost effectiveness, will eventually determine the success of RRAM as the future nonvolatile memory of choice.

In summary, HfO2-based RRAM shows great promise for future generation nonvolatile memory, offering a fab-friendly option, with performance characteristics that qualify it for a fast, low-voltage, low-energy-consumption memory, with a good and perfectible reliability, as demonstrated for fully-functional 10-nm-size devices and with inferred intrinsic scalability down to a few-nanometer size. Further improvement in reliability and additional “in-the-footprint” or built-in selection functionality set important milestones ahead on the road to becoming tomorrow’s nonvolatile memory.

Note: This article is based on the work reported at IEDM 2011 by the Emerging Memory Devices Program team of imec Leuven.4

1.  M. Momodomi et al, IEDM Tech. Dig, pp. 412-415, 1988.
2.  K. Prall, Proc. NVSMW, pp. 5-10, 2007.
3. R. Waser, IEDM Tech. Dig, pp. 289-292, 2008.
4. B. Govoreanu et al, IEDM Tech. Dig, pp. 729-732, 2011.
5. G. Bersuker et al, IEDM Tech. Dig, pp. 456-459, 2010.
6. U. Brossmann et al, J.Appl.Phys, 85(11): 7646-7654, 1999.
7. B. Govoreanu et al, Ext. Abstr. SSDM, pp. 1005-1006, 2011.
8. E. Hildebrandt et al, Appl.Phys.Lett, 99: 112902, 2011.
9. K. Tsukida et al, ISSCC Dig, pp. 258-259, 2010.
10. R. Annunziata et al, IEDM Tech. Dig, pp. 97-100, 2010.
11. S.H. Lee et al, IEDM Tech. Dig, pp. 47-50, 2011.
12. M-J. Lee et al, IEDM Tech. Dig, pp. 771-774, 2007.
13. K. Gopalakhrishnan, VLSI Tech. Symp, pp. 205-206.
14. I.-G. Baek, IEDM Tech. Dig, pp. 737-740, 2011.

About the author
Bogdan Govoreanu is currently appointed as a principal scientist with imec Leuven and a staff member of the Memory Device Design Group, Process Technology Unit, carrying out research in the field of emerging memory devices with focus on resistive switching memory. He received his Applied Sciences in 2004 from the University of Leuven (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven). During his career, Govoreanu has authored or co-authored over 80 research papers and holds/has filed six US and European patents/patent applications. He is also an IEEE Senior Member.


Swiss Metal Assets appears on Deutsche Welle Television Show