Endangered Elements: Tungsten Among China’s Potential Embargo List

Rare Industrial Metal - Tungsten / Wolfram

It didn’t take long for the panic to set in, last year, when the Chinese government flexed its muscle by threatening the world’s Rare Earth Element (REE) supply. With 95% of REE supplies coming from China, that scare was indeed legitimate. But REEs aren’t the only elements with which China has the potential to choke off. On American Elements’ 2011 Top 5 US Endangered Elements List, three elements (tungsten, indium and neodymium) have over 50% of world supply coming from Chinese mines.

To refresh the memory of those who followed the rare earth surge from last year, and the subsequent piquing of interest in rare earth companies, it began with Japan. As the summer of 2010 was coming to a close, reports of an embargo of shipments to Japan for REEs raised concern for manufacturers who depend upon the elements for production primarily in the tech industry. Within a month, that embargo spread to North America and Europe, and concern over Chinese monopolization rose, along with REE prices, and those of the companies devoted to them. When the embargo ended, relief came to the sector, while the pace of development outside of China received only a minor increase. The threat of supply shortages still lingers, especially with tungsten, indium and neodymium.

The example of tungsten is not to be ignored, as 85% of global production comes from China, which has already indicated it might end all exports altogether due to domestic demand increases. With the highest melting point and greatest tensile strength of all elements, tungsten’s importance is unquestionable. Used in all situations that call for high temperature thresholds or hardness and strength, tungsten is imperative to many modern living standards that depend upon it. From a US perspective, the element’s use in the aerospace program, electronics and military (including in bullets and armor) is critical. To the mining industry as a whole, tungsten is a savior with many uses within the assembly of mining equipment itself, including drills in need of durability. Strangely enough, the United States dismantled domestic production of tungsten ore in 1994 with the last tungsten mine, the Pine Creek Mine in Inoyo, California, going down as a historical footnote en route to Chinese dependence.

Today, tungsten production remains primarily within China, but awareness of a need to develop outside of the PRC is becoming clearer. Options in the western hemisphere are appearing, and may soon be getting the attention they need to aid this drive for domestic independence. Juniors such as North American Tungsten [NTC - TSX.V] and Playfair Mining [PLY - TSX.V] may provide answers that mitigate a possible future supply breakdown. For North American Tungsten, the title of being the western world’s leader in tungsten production doesn’t come lightly. Through developing its Cantung Mine, it provides tungsten concentrate production within the borders of Canada’s Northwest Territories, which from an international standpoint is a much more secure mining investment environment to work within. At a much earlier stage, Playfair Mining is not yet a producer, but is heavily leveraged to the price of tungsten, which today sits around $440/MTU (“metric tonne unit”) or over $20/lb. With a goal in mind to partner with an end user of tungsten metal in order to finance its Grey River deposit into production, Playfair is well aware of the potential impact a tungsten shortage would carry.

Due to its high level of use in the manufacturing sector, a significant number of Fortune 500 companies are dependant upon tungsten’s availability. General Electric and its Tungsten Products Division, along with others like Kennametal and ATI Firth Sterling are among those that would most likely benefit from securing a long term tungsten supply, and are among potential targets should Playfair seek a high-worth partner to put its nearest term tungsten property into production. The company has 4 high-grade deposits with two located in the Yukon, one in the Northwest Territories and another on the southern coast of Newfoundland. Each of the properties was acquired strategically during a period of massively deflated tungsten prices, prior to this latest surge over the $440/MTU mark. This increase represents a 70% rise from the recent low prices that graced Playfair’s entry period. While the commodity’s price has risen, the company’s stock has yet to follow suit.

While the current price of the stock seems to have languished, the team is making strides to be better prepared for when the bigger end-users in need of tungsten come knocking. The board includes experienced individuals who have taken deals into production before, as well as Director James Robertson who took the last big tungsten company outside of China to successful acquisition. In both combined 43-101 compliant and non-compliant resource categories, Playfair’s tungsten properties contain more than an estimated 5.5 million MTUs of WO3. It’s to be expected, though, that since Playfair is an exploration company, these resources have room for expansion. As economic uncertainty lingers in all global markets, crucial and endangered elements such as REEs, tungsten, indium and neodymium will be within the watchful eye of western manufacturers in need of these ingredients for their operations. Whether another anticipated panic is inflicted by possible impending embargo actions by China doesn’t change the dependence we have on endangered elements. And like last year’s REE crisis, a price surge on those companies were set to move prior complications is entirely a likely scenario. G. Joel ChuryProspectingJournal.com

- Disclaimer: The author does not currently hold any shares of any of the companies mentioned in the article. However, some members of Cordova Media Inc., which owns the ProspectingJournal.com, may or may not have interests in one or more of the companies mentioned at the time of publication. Staff members from the Prospecting Journal reserve the right to acquire interests in any of the companies mentioned after 36 hours have elapsed upon initial publication of this article. Playfair Mining is a sponsor of ProspectingJournal.com.

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