2012 Outlook: Uncertainty Continues For Rare Earths Prices, China Still Major Player

(Kitco News) - After exploding onto the metals scene in 2010 and garnering widespread media and investor attention, rare earths element prices have dropped and have been unstable mainly due to demand tapering off in 2011, leading to uncertainty in 2012.

Low demand during 2011 was caused by high rare earths prices from both heavy and light rare earths metals, which despite their fluttering prices, remain historically high.

Despite unstable prices throughout 2011, there is some expectation that rare earths prices might become more stable in 2012.

“I think that rare earth metals, they tend to be more strategic in nature and supply versus demand remains quite balanced in favor of prices being stronger in 2012,” said Mike Frawley, global head of metals at Newedge Group. “The pace of consumption in mainland China is a critical component of demand, prices.”

The Chinese continue to control most of the rare earths supply but reports show that Chinese exports are extremely low. Information provided by Metal Pages, a news site that focuses on non-ferrous metals, ferro alloys and rare earths, indicated that rare earth elements exports have dropped 65% in 2011 and that China has only exported 11,000 metric tons of rare earths through the first three quarters of the year.

Reports suggested that the Chinese government may change regulations that would get around Chinese producers who have cut their supply while keeping prices high.

Rare earths prices alone are also an issue not only with volatility, but with their general cost.

According to a report focused on rare earth elements performance for the upcoming year from A.L. Waters Capital, the firm highlighted some specific rare earths and their current prices compared to their peak prices.

A heavy rare earth such as dysprosium, which is commonly used in televisions and lasers, reached a market high of $2,800 per kilogram while its current price is $2,000.

Another heavy rare earths type, europrium, which is used in television screens, peaked at $5,900/kg while its current price is $3,900.

Some light rare earths come at a substantially cheaper price, such as neodymium, which is used in magnets, peaked at $410/kg on the market and currently sits at $270. (A complete list of all 17 rare earth metals and their uses can be found at the end of the article.)

While rare earths are expensive to use in producing several products used daily, the drop in demand does not come from an alternate substance that can be as effective for a fraction of the cost.

“Demand has gone down (in 2011) but I also think that they haven’t really been able to replace rare earth metals,” said Arnett Waters, chairman of A.L. Waters Capital. “I think that part of what’s going on is that businesses are spending less money on more expensive stuff. If I have a use for europrium and I can use a quarter of a pound of it and it does ok in the product that I’m making, I’m not going to adopt a new product in this economy. It would cost too much money.”

Also, with current economic crises around the globe, it is expected that demand will not be strong in 2012 given the historical high prices of rare earths.

Waters used strategic military defense equipment as an example.

“In the case of strategic military equipment, defense budgets are declining,” Waters said. “I realize the U.S. may not be cutting stealth bomber production, but I am saying that in many countries that would like to use these rare earth metals for strategic purposes are cutting their defense budgets and they cannot afford it.”

Rare earths metals play a large role in current modern technology, cruise missiles and other weapons systems.


China holds most of the processing capacity for rare earths metals.

“A lot of the processing capacity is in China and you can’t use Chinese capacity unless you’re actually getting your rare earths from them,” said Waters. “That’s why Lynas Corporation Ltd. (ASX: LYC) and others have been building their plants in Malaysia.”

Lynas currently has a concentration plant under construction at Mount Weld in Western Australia as well as an advanced materials plant in Kuantan, Malaysia. Neither plant has begun production yet.

Molycorp Inc. (NYSE:MCP) has three facilities, two located in the U.S., California and Arizona respectively, as well as one located in Estonia. The company stated earlier in 2011 that production from the three facilities would produce between 4,941 and 5,881 metric tons by the end of 2011. The company expects to raise production to 19,050 metric tons by the end of 2012.

The sentiment to mine and produce rare earths outside of China does not fall squarely on the shoulders of these two companies but it is still believed that bigger companies will gain more control of mines and production compared to smaller mining companies.

“At the end of the day it just means that there’ll be fewer smaller mines and there’s a natural evolutionary process that takes place in all developing parts of the world,” said Frawley. “You’ll have the small miners who will be succeeded by stronger companies. A more efficient process will begin to emerge.”

“That takes a long time and I don’t see it changing the balance of that supply any time soon.”


The biggest obstacle rare earths metals face as an investment is that although classified under the umbrella of rare earths metals, there are 17 different types and they are separated into two categories.

“Rare earth prices are not listed like precious and base metals prices so it is difficult for the average person to invest in,” said Waters. “It’s a barrier to the growth of the industry.

“As the market is maturing, there is going to be a need for a centralized source of information.”

Although newer in the metals world than precious and base metals, information can always be found.

“They’re small markets in comparison to gold, copper and aluminum in terms of tonnage and consumption tonnages,” Frawley said. “In terms of price transparency of these markets you’ll have to dig a little deeper.”

-List of heavy and light rare earths metals and their uses-


Yttrium TV, glass and alloys

Promethium Nuclear batteries

Europium TV screens

Gadolinium Superconductors, magnets

Terbium Lasers, fuel cells and alloys

Dysprosium TVs, lasers

Holmium Lasers

Erbium Lasers, vanadium steel

Thulium X-ray source, ceramics

Yterrbium Infrared lasers, high reactive glass

Lutetium Catalyst, PET scanners


Samarium Magnets, lasers, lighting

Neodymium Magnets

Lanthanum Re-chargeable batteries

Cerium Batteries, catalysts, glass polishing

Praseodymium Magnets, glass colorant

Scandium Aluminum alloy: aerospace

By Alex Létourneau of Kitco News

Gallium Helping Us Stay Connected

Rare Earth Metal - Gallium

The element so instrumental in the success of CIGS or Copper Indium Gallium Selenide solar panels garners little respect. If you do some research on Gallium you will see very few articles on this element. What you see is people talking about how to make melting spoons, and talk of the metal melting in your hand due to its low melting point of 85° F or 29.8° C. Here we are going to go over the history of Gallium and its uses in technology today.

Gallium has the symbol of Ga and the atomic number 31 on the periodic table of the elements. In 1875 Paul Emile Lecoq de Boisbaudran discovered Gallium spectroscopically. He saw Gallium´s characteristic two violet lines. Gallium does not occur free in nature. Lecoq was able to obtain the free element using electrolysis.

Gallium is found in bauxite, sphalerite and coal. It is primarily extracted from Aluminum and Zinc production. The exact amounts mined and recycled are very difficult to quantify. According to the United States Geological Survey the total amount mined in 2010 was approximately 106 t and the total recycled was approximately 78 t. Gallium supply is highly reliant on other Aluminum and Zinc mining for its supply, when the prices of the base metals fall the amount of Gallium available will be highly affected. Similar to other rare industrial metals, mining companies will not invest in the production of these metals because the markets are so small.

The uses of Gallium are found all around you. Semiconductors, LED´s, medicine, electronic components, CIGS solar and new tech like IGZO (Indium, Gallium, Zinc and Oxygen) LCD screens. The new iPhone 5 will have this kind of LCD. Over 90% is used in electronic components in the form GaAs (Gallium Arsenide). Recently CIGS solar panels reached an unprecedented 20.3% efficiency once again proving that CIGS is the most efficient form of solar on the market. The technology that will greatly increase the use of Gallium is smartphones. Analysts predict that smartphone use will grow at a rate of 15-25% over the next several years. Recently LED´s backlit screen TV´s and computer monitors have been all the rage. The LED screen market will continue to grow, further putting strain on the small Gallium supply.

The top producers of Gallium are China, Kazakhstan and Germany. Once again China has a strong position in the production of a rare industrial metal. The difference with Gallium is that almost 40% of the metal produced every year is coming from recycling.

With all of the new technologies coming along using Gallium what will the market for this metal look like in a few years? Unlike some metals like Silver and Gold, Gallium is not traded on the LME (London Metal Exchange). This makes the price of Gallium very stable. Rare industrial or technical metals are small markets with big possibilities. So if you are looking for an investment that is rarely talked about, Gallium could be a good option.

 By: Randy Hilarski - The Rare Metals Guy

Rare Earth Elements are not the same as Rare Industrial Metals

Randy Hilarski has also released a video on this article that can be watched by clicking here.

I read articles from other writers who often refer to Rare Industrial or Technical Metals as Rare Earth elements. I would like to take some time and clear up the issue. I deal with RIM’s and REE´s on a daily basis. The two might both be considered metals but that is where the similarities end.

First we have REE´s or Rare Earth Elements. These metals consist of 17 metals, the Lanthanides plus Scandium and Yttrium on the periodic table of the elements. These metals are in a powder form, making them difficult to assay and store. One important factor that is often mentioned is that they are not rare. This is very true, but finding REE´s in large deposits is difficult.

In the mining sector REE mines are standalone mines, that focus on the mining and refining of REE´s exclusively. Currently around 97% of all REE´s are mined and refined in China. Historically REE mining and refining has been a dirty business, which has affected the environment around the mines. The elements Thorium and Uranium are often found along with the REE´s in the deposits causing the slurry to be slightly radioactive when processed. The use of highly toxic acids during the processing can also have serious environmental impact. Many companies are trying to open REE mines but they are meeting headwinds, as nations and people do not want these mines in their backyard.

Over the last few years China has dramatically cut its export of REE´s. This and the increased need for REE´s have caused a meteoric rise in the value of these metals. The one area that very few people talk about is the role of the media combined with speculators in raising the value of REE ETF´s in particular. For the last couple years REE´s were the rock stars of the metals. The news has calmed as of late, but the supply and demand factors that caused the metals to soar are still in place. Recently China closed it BaoTao mine until REE prices stabilize.

Rare Industrial Metals, RIM´s or Technical metals are another group entirely. The RIM´s are made up of metals used in over 80% of all products we use on a daily basis. Without these metals you would not have the world of the 21st century with our mobile phones, hybrid cars, flat screen TV´s, highly efficient solar energy and computers. Some of these metals include Indium, Tellurium, Gallium, Tantalum and Hafnium. These metals really are rare compared to the Rare Earth Metals which causes a great deal of confusion. These metals are in a metallic form, stable and easy to store and ship.

RIM´s are mined as a by-product of base or common metal mining. For example Tellurium is a by-product of Copper mining and Gallium is a by-product of Aluminum and Zinc mining. The mining of the RIM´s currently are for the most part at the mercy of the markets for the base or common metal mining. If the Copper mines of the world decide to cut production due to Copper losing value, this will have a huge impact on the amount of Tellurium that can be refined. Up until now, because of the previous small size of the RIM market, many companies do not feel the need to invest money into better technology to mine and refine these metals. The RIM´s would have to be valued much higher to gain the attention of the mining industry.

When China cut exports of REE´s they also cut exports of RIM´s. This put pressure on the value of these metals. RIM´s have increased in value, but nowhere near the meteoric rise of the REE´s. Most of the metals increased in value around 47% in 2010 and 25% so far in 2011. There is still a lot of room for growth in the value of these metals (not based on speculation like REE´s) as demand is exceeding supply now and in the future.

For Example, when REE´s and the stock market recently fell sharply the RIM´s came down slightly in value but have held their own extremely well. On a further note, according to Knut Andersen of Swiss Metal Assets, ¨Even though prices of the Rare Industrial Metals continue to go up in value, consumers will eventually only see a very small increase in the price of the end products, because there is so little of each metal used to produce these products. Also if the people can´t afford a smartphone they will still buy less expensive phones that still use the same Rare Industrial Metals¨.

The need for RIM´s has risen sharply over the years and will continue to grow at astronomical rates. China, India, South America and the whole of Africa with hundreds of millions of new consumers are now buying and using computers and mobile phones to name just a few products.

The future is bright for the technologies and the Rare Industrial Metals that make them work and for anyone who participates in stockpiling these metals now to meet future increased demand.

By: Randy Hilarski - The Rare Metals Guy

What Are Technology Metals?

So, just what are “technology metals’? As a relatively new term, coined by Jack Lifton in 2007 and now widely used in the industry, there are probably a number of alternative definitions out there. Here at TMR, we say that the technology metals are those generally-rare metals that are essential for the production of ‘high tech’ devices and engineered systems, such as:

  • The mass production of miniaturized electronics and associated devices;
  • Advanced weapons systems and platforms for national defense;
  • The generation of electricity using ‘alternative’ sources such as solar panels and wind turbines;
  • The storage of electricity using cells and batteries.

There are of course numerous other uses and applications of these metals.

Almost all technology metals are byproducts of the production of base metals, with the exception of the rare earth metals, as a group, and lithium.

Prior to World War II, there were many metals for which there were no practical uses. They were literally laboratory curiosities available only in small quantities, obtained at high costs in both time and money.  For this reason, they were called the ‘minor metals’; they simply had no major uses in contrast to the base metals and even to the precious metals.  It didn’t matter how abundant a metal actually was in nature; if it had no practical uses it simply wouldn’t be produced. Nickel, for example, was a ‘minor metal’ before the commercial development of stainless steel in 1919, when economical methods of mass producing and using stainless steel were undertaken in earnest. Nickel after that rapidly became a high volume production metal.

In the first few years of the 20th Century, malleable tungsten was developed at General Electric and it rapidly displaced all other materials for use as filaments in incandescent light bulbs. Tungsten production increased, and shortly thereafter tungsten steels were developed and used, at first for military armor and armor piercing projectiles. Tungsten carbide for cutting tools soon after that revolutionized precision machining, just in time to make mass produced engines a reality. Tungsten, a minor metal in 1900, became by 1918 an important industrial metal, and had the designation ‘technology metal’ existed in 1918, tungsten would surely have been recognized as such at that point.

As an example of a more well-known metal transitioning from ‘minor’ to ‘major’ status, look at the late 19th Century  minor metal aluminum, which was used to cap the Washington Monument in 1886, as a symbol of America’s wealth. Aluminum was then more expensive than gold. Keep in mind that only a lunatic or a visionary would have predicted in 1886, that common people would cook with aluminum pots and pans less than a century later, and that even in 1919 the idea of nickel stainless steel kitchen appliances for the masses would have been considered fantasy nonsense.

World War II transformed a sleepy academic discipline, the study of the physical properties of all of the metals, into modern metallurgy with its emphasis on developing end uses for metals based not just on their properties as structural materials but even more important, on their newly categorized electrical, electronic, and magnetic properties for use in technology.

Fifty years ago, it was unclear which, if any of the then minor metals would be most useful for practical mass producible technologies.  We were then only just discovering and, actually, determining which of the electronic and magnetic properties of the chemical elements were important to our civilization’s needs and desires.  Prior to World War I, only the structural, decorative, simple electrical transmission and storage, and monetary metals were well known even to the metallurgists of the day. The last naturally occurring metal to be discovered was rhenium and that was only in 1924. What no one knew between the wars was that it would be important to know which, if any, of the little used minor metals could in fact be produced in significant volume at a significant yearly rate of production. There was no need for any such information, certainly not in academia, where most of these studies would be then undertaken. The equation was simple; no use equals no demand and therefore no attempt to supply in quantity.

World War II was the single most important driver for the transformation of the minor metals into the technology metals. Economics as a limitation to innovation was put aside and national security became the only driver for the development of the technologies for jet and rocket engines, radio and radar, electronic computing, and super weapons.

A glittering galaxy of physicists and innovative engineers, perhaps a once in a thousand years gathering of intellects, told the chemical engineers who specialized in metallurgy, which metals they critically needed in abundance and the world’s governments told all of them not to consider economics in their quest to produce them. The chemical engineers then began systematically to learn how to find, refine, and mass produce the formerly minor metals, now desperately needed for war technology. Among others this lead to the production for the first time, in every case, of large quantities of previously never-before-seen ultra pure silicon and germanium, as well as high purity gallium and indium, uranium and thorium, and mixed, and some individually separated,  rare earth metals and, just after the war, of lithium.

After the hot part of World War II ended, a 50 year long Cold War immediately ensued, during which the postwar uneconomic overproduction of minor metals for the new technologies continued, and the increasingly surplus production was diverted to high volume civilian consumer uses, spun off from technologies developed for the military on a cost plus basis. This was the seeding of our modern ‘Age of Technology.’ Its original economics were synthetic; the critical materials for modern technologies were being produced from operations and sources the development of which had been fully subsidized, in an unprecedented open-ended hand out by the war economy, both cold and hot.

So, at the same time, today, that we have become totally dependent on the technology metals for the mass production of necessary consumer goods such as miniaturized electronics, large scale television and cinema displays, electronic data processing, and personal communications,. i.e., our way of life, we are also critically dependent on technology metals for our national security in the form of secure communications, weapons guidance, surveillance, and battlefield superiority. The problem is that the bulk of the technology metals is now used for civilian production and the military instead of catalyzing the supply and taking a priority position, is now simply another customer.

In the table below we list those metals that we define as ‘rare’, by defining rare as ‘produced annually in a quantity of 25,000 metric tonnes or less.’ Only the most obscure of these rare metals, such as the rare earths holmium, ytterbium, and lutetium, can still be defined as minor metals, because even today they only have minor uses since they are and will remain too rare ever to be available in sufficient quantity for mass production of a technology.

Estimated global production of various metals in 2009
[technology metals are in red: rare metals are in bold]
Sources: US Geological Survey, British Geological Survey
Metal Production [tonnes]
Cobalt 62,000
Uranium 35,332
Lanthanum 32,860
Silver 21,332
Neodymium 19,096
Cadmium 18,000
Lithium 18,000
Yttrium 8,900
Bismuth 7,300
Praseodymium 6,150
Gold 2,350
Dysprosium 2,000
Selenium 1,500
Samarium 1,364
Zirconium 1,230
Gadolinium 744
Indium 600
Terbium 450
Europium 272
Palladium 195
Platinum 178
Germanium 140
Gallium 78
Rhenium 52
Rhodium 30
Hafnium 25
Tantalum 0
Lutetium UNKNOWN
Scandium UNKNOWN
Tellurium UNKNOWN
Ytterbium UNKNOWN

The technology metals are almost all rare metals, and they are almost all produced as byproducts of base or common metals.

The problem with the technology metals is that our supply of them, or more specifically our maximum rates of production of them, is critically dependent mostly upon our production of base metals. In the case of the rare earth metals, mined as a group, the key supply issue is the complex metallurgy of the separation of the individual rare earths from each other; for the case of lithium, a key issue is the length of time that primary concentration takes. The rare earths as a group are actually not rare, based on the admittedly arbitrary definition above, though individual rare earths certainly are.

The rare earths and lithium are today the subject of much discussion, because they have become the most visible technology metals.  The definition of a rare metal is somewhat fluid; a few of today’s rare metals may not always be so. Lithium, for example, is on the cusp of being struck from the list of rare metals, because of its use in electrical storage. But it has turned out that once a minor metal becomes a technology metal, it will never again be a minor metal.


LED Applications Growing, Will Only Lead to More REE Demand

An end product’s supply chain can be far reaching, with parts or all of the upstream and downstream producers sometimes getting hit at different times by economic forces.

This appears to be happening in China’s domestic LED market, which has seen a marked fall-off in demand, according to the China Strategic Monitor. That’s hit pricing during the second half of this year.

“Investment plans are being curtailed both in the upstream and downstream compared to those presented last year,” according to the report. “Despite this there are many companies still attracted to the market and many pharmaceutical companies and even wineries in South China are moving into LED lighting products. Based on this trend the industry is likely to realize large-scale production capacity over the next 2 or 3 years and pricing for products should fall a further 20-30%.”

Industry watchers reckon 10% of LED-driven businesses in China could go bankrupt this year. And one chief executive, speaking at the recent China Industrial Development Forum for the Low Carbon Economy, said 90% of all China’s LED businesses are running at a loss.

Interesting. The country’s Guangdong province said earlier this month that it had exported US$3.81 billion worth of lighting products between January and August – that’s a 21% increase over the same time period last year.

“Customs authorities indicated that the main export market is still Europe and America with the two taking up 63.2% of the total,” a report said. “Though exports to Hong Kong, Japan and other ASEAN countries are up 60% on last year.”

The massive rise in LED exports is ascribed to the increasing trend of upgrading to energy-efficient lighting combined with the higher production values and quality in China, according to the report.

Still, various companies producing LED products complain that the industry is hit with high selling, raw material and R&D costs. So, while a company reports a 32% jump in LED sales in the third quarter of 2011when compared to 2Q10, the senior executives also talk about the need to implement structural changes, improve execution, reduce overhead costs and initiate job cuts.

Now, the LED industry uses a wide range of phosphor materials to convert light emission from LED chips into a different wavelength. So, combining a blue LED with one or more phosphors can create a white LED. Many of the phosphors used in LEDs contain rare-earth elements, the most common one being the yttrium aluminum garnet, which is doped with cerium.  Another phosphor, called TAG, contains terbium, while silicate and nitride phosphors are commonly doped with cerium or europium.

 Here’s a small example of how LED products are being used: Kingsun Optoelectronic Co has just installed more than 10,000 street lights containing one million high-efficiency white LEDs along 75 miles of roads in Shenzhen. Kingsun anticipates a 60-percent reduction in energy consumption compared to the high-pressure sodium fixtures that have been replaced in the upgrade.

And while LEDs are now widely recognized as emerging light sources for general illumination, it turns out that LED lighting can also be used in a broad range of life-science applications such as skin-related therapies, blood irradiation, pain management, hypertension reduction and photodynamic therapy, which, when combined with drugs, is finding its way into cancer research.

In other words, the LED industry is only now just starting to be exploited, meaning demand will grow across all sectors. Translation – more rare earths will be needed in producing these products as research advances are made and commercial producers become more lean and efficient.

By: Brian Truscott

Alternatives to truly ‘rare earth’

Science…tells us that nothing in nature, not even the tiniest particle, can disappear without a trace. Nature does not know extinction. All it knows is transformation…and everything science has taught me … strengthens my belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death. Nothing disappears without a trace.

Werner Von Braun

Yttrium, promethium, europium, and luterium may sound like mythological characters, but they’re rare-earth elements that comprise the backbone of new technologies for the 21st century.

Their discovery in recent years has advanced the electronics industry. Yttrium, when alloyed with other elements, forms part of aircraft engines; promethium is an essential component of long-lived nuclear batteries; europium powers images in flat-screen televisions; and luterium detects radiation in PET scanners used for medical research. Many new technologies owe their success to rare-earth elements.

The Prius, for example, contains rare-earth elements for its LCD screens, electric motor and generator, headlight glass, catalytic converter, UV windows, and mirrors; other cars require similar components to provide competitive features for buyers. Magnets under the hood of a Prius are some of the most powerful on the planet. Different from older technologies, they use rare-earth elements to charge the battery and turn the wheels.

As the world’s technologies become increasingly dependent on rare-earth metals, their reserves become more valuable. Half the world’s rare-earth deposits are in China, which currently mines almost 100 percent of global supply. Because China recognizes her own increasing needs for new technologies, it reduced rare-earth element export quotas by almost 40 percent in 2010.

What will other countries do to remain competitive in the high-tech market? Develop new technologies. Hubs like Research Triangle Park and Raleigh’s new Nature Research Center are ideal incubators for the next generation of scientists and engineers. Currently, researchers are working around the clock to design products that do not require rare-earth elements.

The most economical solution is to reduce our reliance on rare-earth elements altogether. Toyota is scrambling to develop technologies that do not require magnets utilizing rare-earth elements in hybrid cars; the television industry hopes to someday eliminate the need for europium and terbium in its screen imagery.

Training the next generation of scientists and engineers to inspire creative solutions is critical; otherwise, iPods, PET scans, and plasma televisions may become increasingly limited in their production. After all, where will America be without scandium, a rare-earth element alloyed with aluminum in baseball bats?

By Meg Lowman

Tantalum Market Has Hard Time

LONDON, Aug 26, 2011 (BUSINESS WIRE) — The projected future for niobium producers looks quite positive while the tantalum market will probably experience hard time under conditions of major supply shortfalls. Associated geologically, tantalum and niobium have very different application areas that have impacted the development of both markets significantly during the crisis period.

The recent mine closures have cut global tantalum supply by around 40% and demand for the material is forecast to increase by only small index. However tantalum has valuable advantages over its competitive materials and is widely used in the manufacture of electronic capacitors.

For niobium the forecasts are that as end-users bring back their suspended capacity the demand will reach healthy growth rate. Although given the fact that the output of the material is enough to cover the projected consumption, there is little prospect of investing into the industry in future.

Detailed review and outlook on global, regional and country markets of tantalum and niobium can be found in the new market research report “Tantalum and Niobium (Columbium) Market Review” that presents in-depth discussion of the present market landscape, historical background and future forecasts for the markets and features topical data showing tantalum and niobium capacities, production, consumption, trade statistics, and recent prices (globally, regionally and by country).

Report Details:
Tantalum and Niobium (Columbium) Market Review Published: February, 2011 Pages: 63

The research covers insightful information on tantalum and niobium major marketers - producers and suppliers, features data on tantalum and niobium production, consumption and trade in the reviewed countries, tantalum and niobium prices. Market outlooks through 2016, showing projected tantalum and niobium market volumes and prices, are also reviewed.

The report on tantalum and niobium has been worked out by Merchant Research & Consulting Ltd, an internationally recognized market research agency, specializing in chemical industry. “Tantalum and Niobium (Columbium) Market Review” is included into the catalogue “Metals”, which also incorporates studies on Aluminum, Antimony, Beryllium, Chromium, Copper, Iron and Steel, Lead, Magnesium, Mercury, Titanium markets.

SOURCE: Merchant Research & Consulting Ltd.

Forget oil, Indium may be the next most precious resource

by Thomas J Thompson on October 30, 2010

Indium Ingots

I will grant you that Indium finger isn’€™t a good title for a Bond movie, but Indium may certainly be worth hoarding.

Let’s start with the basics. Indium is a chemical element with chemical symbol In and atomic number 49. It is rare, very soft, malleable and is easily fusible. It is a post-transitional metal that is chemically similar to aluminum or gallium. Zinc ores are the primary source of indium and is named for the indigo blue line in its spectrum that was the first indication of its existence in ores, as a new and unknown element.

Here€™s why it’€™s important€“ today’€™s mobile touchscreen gadgets, along with all liquid crystal displays, rely on it, and it could be gone within the decade.

Indium is the principal component in indium tin oxide (ITO). ITO has unique qualities that make it unique. It is a rare example of a material that is both electrically conducting and optically transparent, which means it does not absorb photons of light. Absorption occurs when a photon’€™s energy matches that needed to knock an electron into an excited state. In a metallic conductor, where there is a free-flowing “€œsea”€ of electrons with many different energy states, his almost always happens. Accordingly, almost all metals are highly absorbing and entirely opaque. Not so ITO. It is transparent like glass, but also conducts.

ITO changed the way touchscreen works. The common methods, prior to ITO, were to use infrared LEDs ranged around the screen to fire beams that are blocked by a touch, but those were bulky and required a lot of power to run; or to use a stylus and two layers of ITO separated by a slight gap. Tapping this resistive screen with the stylus brought the two layers together, allowing a current to pass. New touchscreen devices utilize the fact that your finger is conductive to do away with the stylus. Touching the screen changes its capacitance at that location, a change picked up by a single layer of ITO.

The problem is that no one is sure how much indium there is left. The US Geological Survey estimates that known reserves of indium worldwide amount to 16,000 tons (63% in China). At the current rate of consumption, those reserves will be exhausted by 2020. Those numbers don’t take into account recycling or any new sources of indium. According to Indium Corporation, the largest processor of indium, claims that, on the basis of increasing recovery yields during extraction, recovery from a wider range of base metals (including tin, copper and other polymetallic deposits) and new mining investments, the long-term supply of indium is sustainable, reliable and sufficient to meet increasing future demands.

According to James Mitchell Crow writing in New Scientist magazine, the increasing demands for ITO promise to make ITO rare and, therefore, more expensive. The touchscreen market is currently projected at $1.47 billion and will balloon to $2.5 billion by 2017. This means that the race to find a replacement for ITO are on! Some of the replacements under consideration are zinc oxide, but it’€™s not as conductive, transparent or physically resilient as ITO. Another consideration is to stretch the current reserves of indium by mixing it with cadmium oxide. Doing so may reduce the amount of indium necessary per screen by 80%. Unfortunately, cadmium is highly toxic and prone to cracking. More futuristic thoughts include the development of conducting polymers, but these are often prone to ultraviolet light and oxygen.

So is it the end of the touchscreen era? Probably not €“ thanks to nanotechnology.

One solution may be carbon nanotubes. Carbon is a chemical chameleon. In some guises, it is the most light-absorbing material known. Pare it down to nanoscale structures, however, and it becomes transparent. Carbon nanotubes are essentially graphene sheets rolled up into tiny cylinders. Graphene, the wonder material behind the award of this year’€™s Nobel prize in physics, consists of sheets of graphite just a single atom thick. The problem is that individual nanotubes are highly conductive, but the electrons racing across their surface stop dead when they get to the end of a nanotube and have to jump to the next.

Another idea may be metal nanowires. Experiments with silver nanowires have shown transparency of 85 percent and a conductivity only a fraction behind that of ITO. Unfortunately, silver nanowires are 10 times as expensive to produce as top-grade ITO. Other concepts include a mechanical switch behind every pixel, registering the force as the screen is touched, but using pressure-sensing technology means doing away with the protective glass cover, making it more susceptible to damage. Another possibility is an optical technology that incorporates a light-detecting element into each pixel. These light sensors turn the screen into a scanner that can detect and follow a finger. However, it needs significant processing power to continually analyze the screen surface and works only a quarter as fast as a traditional laptop touchpad.

In any case, such innovations do not address the more fundamental problem that, touch or no touch, the electrodes that supply power to the pixels of LCD displays themselves depend on ITO. That will be solved only by the development of new materials that mimic ITO’€™s intensely desirable combination of transparency and conductivity.