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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
- Superalloys in combination with nickel, tungsten and molybdenum
- Thermocouples in combination with tungsten for measuring temperatures up to 2200°C
- Filaments for mass spectrographs and ion gauges
- Photoflash lamps for photography
- 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.
One year ago, a report from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) on the global supply of essential PV module materials predicted possible disruptions for thin-film manufacturing.
The availability of indium, gallium and tellurium was examined in the context of current and future production needs, and the DOE found cause for concern. Indium and tellurium were pegged as especially vulnerable to supply tightness and price volatility, according to both the report and several market analysts at the time.
New Government Report Identifies Supply Risks For Thin-Film PV Materials” in the February 2011 issue of Solar Industry.)
Now, the DOE has released the
latest edition of its Critical Materials Strategy. Have the worries over thin-film PV materials supply eased? According to the DOE, the general supply-demand picture for indium, gallium and tellurium has “improved slightly,” but the situation is not entirely reassuring. The three metals are still highlighted (alongside neodymium and dysprosium) as clean-energy materials that face a “significant risk of supply chain bottlenecks in the next two decades.”
The report attributes the slight improvement primarily to decreased demand for the three thin-film materials: Although PV deployment is expected to grow, the requirements of the materials per module are expected to shrink.
For copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) modules, manufacturers are shifting to compositions with higher proportions of gallium and lower concentrations of indium, the DOE says. The result is a “partial trade-off in the potential for supply risk between the two elements.” At the same time, CIGS’ market share assumption has been reduced under the DOE’s new calculations, lowering projected demand for both indium and gallium.
Cadmium telluride (CdTe) thin-film modules currently account for approximately 10% of the PV market, according to the report. Declining silicon prices may threaten this slice of the market, but high tellurium costs and the increasing need for CdTe manufacturers to compete for supply with non-PV companies requiring tellurium continue to cause supply headaches.
“The cost of tellurium is a critical issue for CdTe solar cell makers, and the industry is working to lower material use and increasing recovery of new scrap to reduce reliance on primary tellurium,” the DOE says in the report.
Although short-term supply of tellurium appears adequate, future capacity increases may be insufficient to supply both CdTe manufacturing and the multitude of other manufacturing sectors that use tellurium. Under one scenario modeled in the report, tellurium supply would need to increase 50% more than its projected 2015 total in order to meet expected demand.
Indium and gallium have also experienced increased popularity in non-PV manufacturing uses, such as semiconductor applications, flat-panel displays, and coatings for smartphones and tablet computers. The DOE forecasts that as a result, supplies may run short by 2015 unless production of these materials is increased – or non-PV demand lessens.
Of the two metals, gallium poses more cause for concern, as the DOE has adjusted its assumptions of future gallium use under CIGS manufacturers’ expected manufacturing modifications.
“These higher estimates [of gallium requirements] are driven largely by the assumption that gallium will increasingly be substituted for indium in CIGS composition,” the DOE explains. This change points to the benefits of reducing material intensity in other aspects of PV manufacturing, such as reducing cell thickness and improving processing efficiency.
Overall, indium, gallium and tellurium all receive moderate scores (2 or 3 on a scale of 1 to 4) from the DOE with regard to both their importance to clean energy and short- and medium-term supply risk.
In order to help mitigate possible supply disruptions that could threaten the manufacturing and deployment of PV, as well as other types of clean energy, the agency has developed a three-pronged approach.
“First, diversified global supply chains are essential,” the DOE stresses in the report. “To manage supply risk, multiple sources of materials are required. This means taking steps to facilitate extraction, processing and manufacturing here in the United States, as well as encouraging other nations to expedite alternative supplies.”
The second strategy relies on developing alternatives to materials whose supply may be constrained. For PV, one DOE research program focuses on advancements in thin-film formulations such as copper-zinc-tin and sulfide-selenide. Another initiative funds research and development into PV inks based on earth-abundant materials such as zinc, sulfur and copper.
“Several projects also seek to use iron pyrite – also known as fool’s gold – to develop prototype solar cells,” the DOE notes in the report. “Pyrite is non-toxic, inexpensive, and is the most abundant sulfide mineral in the Earth’s crust.”
Finally, improving recycling and reuse mechanisms can reduce demand for new materials, the DOE says, adding that these strategies also can help improve the sustainability of manufacturing processes.
Photo: Enbridge Inc.’s 5 MW Tilbury solar project in Ontario uses First Solar’s cadmium telluride thin-film modules. Photo credit: Enbridge
Researchers using novel materials to build photovoltaic cells say their efforts could nearly double the efficiency of silicon-based solar cells.
The cells being developed by teams from the University of Arkansas and Arkansas State University have the potential to achieve a light-to-energy conversion rate, or solar efficiency, of 40 percent or better, according to the researchers.
The photovoltaic cells are intended for use in satellites and space instruments. Currently, the silicon-based solar cells that NASA uses in its satellites and instruments have efficiencies of only up to 23 percent, according to NASA statistics.
And today it was announced that the research teams are getting more money–a total of $1 million in new funding–to further their work. Of that, about $735,000 will come from NASA, $237,000 from the University of Arkansas, and $86,000 from Arkansas State.
Omar Manasreh, professor of electrical engineering at the Optoelectronics Research Lab at the University of Arkansas, has been developing the technology so far with a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research. He leads the research team along with Liangmin Zhang, assistant professor at Arkansas State.
“It [the grant] will create new opportunities for further development in the field of novel photovoltaic materials and devices,” Manasreh said in a statement.
Manasreh has been testing two separate methods for growing metallic nanoparticles using a novel combination of materials as the semiconductor. While CIGS (copper, indium, gallium and selenium) solar cells are not uncommon, Manasreh is using a variation of CIGS-based cells–CuInSe2 and CuInGaSe2–to generate molecules that bind to a central atom and that are known as volatile ligands. The nanocrystals can then be converted into thin-film solar cells, or incorporated into nanotubes, by combining the material with either titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. His second approach uses indium arsenide (InAs) a material commonly used in infrared detectors.
“The second approach uses molecular beam epitaxy, a method of depositing nanocrystals, to create quantum dots made of indium arsenide (InAs). Quantum dots are nano-sized particles of semiconductor material,” according to the University of Arkansas.
When exposed to ultraviolet light, the nanocrystals grown in liquid emit brighter light enhancing the response of the nanocrystals. The phenomenon shows the potential to increase the energy conversion efficiency of the materials (see photo).
This research team isn’t the first to experiment with growing nanoparticles using liquid. In 2007, Calif-based company Innovalight developed a “silicon ink” for creating crystalline silicon solar cells that works by inserting nanoparticles into a solvent, pouring the liquid on a substrate, and then removing the liquid to be left with a silicon crystalline structure. At the time, the solar cells made from the method had a 22 percent efficiency. Innovalight was acquired by Dupont earlier this year.
What do ics, lasers, optical fibres, capacitors, displays and headphones have in common? Answer: they are all electronic products that depend on one or more of the rare earth elements. And that list is far from complete.
There are 17 rare earth elements, all vital to the electronics industry in some form. Yet, despite their name, some rare earth element
s are relatively plentiful: cerium is, apparently, as abundant as copper. They are regarded as ‘rare’ because deposits of these elements are generally not exploitable commercially.
Though typically used in relatively small quantities per product, a major worry has emerged recently about the guaranteed continuation of their supply – some 97% of rare earths are currently supplied by China.
Over the last few years, China has been reducing its exports of rare earths and recently cut back more drastically, by around 70%
. And an ominous note was sounded when China completely halted supplies to Japan after a row about Japan’s arrest of a Chinese boat captain. He was released and supplies resumed. Squabbles aside, the prediction is that, within a few years, China will need its entire output of rare earths to satisfy its own domestic demand.
So action is being taken to avoid the drastic scenario of the supply of rare earths simply coming to a halt (see below). If it did, it is astonishing how many electronic products we use every day would become either much more difficult – even impossible – to make or much more expensive.
Take one of the most widely used rare earths – neodymium. It was first used to generate the light in green laser pointers, but then it was found that, when mixed with iron and boron, neodymium makes magnets that are weight for weight 12 times stronger than conventional iron magnets. Result: neodymium magnets are used in in-ear headphones, microphones, loudspeakers and hard disk drives, as well as electric motors for hybrid cars and generators.
Where low mass is important, they are vital: for example, in laptops, they provide finer control in the motors that spin the hard disk and the arm that writes and reads data to and from it, allowing much more information to be stored in the same area.
In its Critical Materials Strategy, the US Department of Energy (DoE) estimates new uses of neodymium, in products like wind tu
rbines and electric cars, could make up 40% of demand in an already overstretched market, which is why any shortages would be critical.
Most of the rare earths vital to electronics are less well known: erbium is one example, a crucial ingredient in optical fibres. For long distance optical fibre transmission, amplification is vital and is achieved with the help of erbium. Embedded within short sections of the optical fibre, excitable ions of erbium are pushed into a high energy state by irradiating them with a laser. Light signals travelling down the fibre stimulate the erbium ions to release their stored energy as more light of precisely the correct wavelength, amplifying the signals.
Tellurium is an element that could see a huge increase in demand because in 2009, solar cells made from thin films of cadmium telluride became the first to outdo silicon panels in terms of the cost of generating a Watt of electricity. Until now, there has been little interest in tellurium, but if it leads to significantly cheaper solar power, demand will rocket and that is why the DoE anticipates potential shortages by 2025.
Hafnium is another rare earth proving itself vital to the semiconductor industry; hafnium oxide is a highly effective electrical ins
ulator. It outperforms the standard transistor material, silicon dioxide, in reducing leakage current, while switching 20% faster. It has been a major factor in enabling the industry to move to ever smaller process nodes.
Also central to semiconductors is tantalum, key to billions of capacitors used worldwide in products like smartphones and tablet computers. In its pure form, this metal forms one of two conducting plates on which charge is stored. As an oxide, it is an excellent insulator, preventing current leakage between the plates, and is also self healing, reforming to plug any current leakage.
One of the most widely used rare earths is indium, which we all spend a lot of time looking at. The alloy indium tin oxide (ITO) provides the rare combination of both electrical conductivity and optical transparency, which makes it perfect for flat screen displays and tvs,
where it forms the see through front electrode controlling each pixel. A layer of ITO on a smartphone’s screen gives it the touch sensitive conductivity to which we have been accustomed in the last few years. Mixed with other metals, indium becomes a light collector and can be used to create new kinds of solar cells, together with copper and selenium.
Another rare earth valuable for its magnetic properties is dysprosium. When mixed with terbium and iron, it creates the alloy Terfenol D, which changes shape in response to a magnetic field; a property known as magnetostriction. Dysprosium can also handle heat
; while magnets made from a pure neodymium-iron-boron alloy lose magnetisation at more than 300°C, adding a small amount of dysprosium solves the problem. This make the element invaluable in magnets used in devices such as turbines and hard disk drives.
Other rare earths include: technetium, used in medical imaging; lanthanum and, the main components of a ‘mischmetal’ (an alloy of rare earth elements) used to create the negative electrode in nickel metal hydride batteries – and cerium also helps to polish disk drives and monitor screens; yttrium, important in microwave communication, and yttrium iron garnets act as resonators in frequency meters; and europium and terbium.
The last have been used for decades to produce images in colour tvs, thanks to their phosphorescent properties – terbium for yellow-green and europium for blue and red. More recently, energy saving compact fluorescent light bulbs have used them to generate the same warm light as the incandescent tungsten bulbs they replaced.
Is there a single reason why the rare earths have proved so valuable for such a range of technologies? The answer is no – it is more a result of each element’s particular physical characteristics, notably the electron configuration of the atoms, according to one of the world’s leading experts, Karl Gschneidner, a senior metallurgist at the DoE’s Ames Laboratory.
“Some of the properties are quite similar; basically, their chemical properties. That is why they are difficult to separate from each other in their ores and that is why they are mixed together in the ores. But many of the physical properties vary quite a bit from one another, especially those which depend upon the 4f electron (a particular electron shell in the configuration of the atom), that is the magnetic, optical and electronic properties. Even some of the physical properties, which are not directly connected to the 4f electrons, vary considerably. For example the melting points vary from 798°C for cerium to 1663°C for lutetium.”
What makes the rare earths so special is the way they can react with other elements to get results that neither could achieve alone, especially in the areas of magnets and phosphors, as Robert Jaffe, a Professor of Physics at MIT, explains.
“The result is high field strength, high coercivity, light weight magnets, clearly valuable in tiny devices where magnetically stored information has to be moved around, like hard disk read/write operations. The magnetic properties of pure metals and relatively simple alloys have been thoroughly explored and there is nothing as good as rare earth magnets. Two paradigms for magnetic material are NeBFe (neodymium-boron-iron) and SmCo (samarium-cobalt), with the former most popular now.
“In phosphors, europium, terbium and others absorb high frequency light and then re emit the light in regions of the spectrum that are very useful in manipulation of colour, hence their use in flat panel displays and compact fluorescent lights.”
Another example is neodymium oxide, which can be added to crt glass to enhance picture brightness by absorbing yellow light waves. Neodymium has a strong absorption band centred at 580nm, which helps clarify the eye’s discrimination between reds and greens.
Given how vital they are for the electronics industry and other technologies – by one estimate, £3trillion worth of industries depend on them – it is remarkable that the world has been so complacent about sourcing rare earths, allowing a single country to virtually monopolise the supply. But that is now changing.
For example, the Mountain Pass mine in California is being reactivated by Molycorp Minerals in a $781million project, having been mothballed in 2002. Others include the Nolans and Mount Weld Projects in Australia, a site at Hoidas Lake in Canada, Lai Chau in Vietnam and others in Russia and Malaysia.
In Elk Creek, Nebraska, Canadian company Quantum Rare Earth Development is drilling to look for supplies and has called on President Obama to move aggressively to create a stockpile of rare earths.
Another associated problem is the lack of people with rare earth expertise, as Gschneidner says.
“There is a serious lack of technically trained personnel to bring the entire rare earth industry – from mining to OEMs – up to full speed in the next few years. Before the disruption of the US rare earth industry, about 25,000 people were employed in all aspects. Today, there are only about 1500.”
Despite these moves, it could be years before they enhance supplies significantly. For the longer term, there are prospects of better sources emerging. Just a couple of months ago, Japanese scientists from the University of Tokyo announced they had found the minerals in the floor of the Pacific Ocean in such high density that a single square kilometre of ocean floor could provide 20% of current annual world consumption. Two regions near Hawaii and Tahiti might contain as much as 100billion tonnes.
The team was led to the sea floor because they reasoned that many rock samples on land containing metallic elements were originally laid down as ocean sediments. “It seems natural to find rare earth element rich mud on the sea floor,” they said.
A final extraordinary fact about rare earths is that, despite their importance, we have hardly bothered to recycle them at all. In an age when metals like aluminium, copper, lead and tin have recycling rates of between 25% and 75%, it is estimated that only 1% of rare earths are recycled. Japan alone is estimated to have 300,000 tons of rare earths in unused electronic goods. If we do not correct that quickly, over the next few years at least, rare earths could live up to their name with a vengeance.
The last decade has been a wonderful time for Gold Bugs and Silver Bugs. We have profited and protected our wealth against inflation. Gold has risen from around $250 per ounce in 2001 to a recent high of $1917.90 and silver has risen from around $5 per ounce in 2001 to a recent high of $49.81. These numbers are quite exciting for anyone involved in the precious metals markets. Being a Silver Bug myself, I have to admit the ride up has been rather erratic. Long ago I had to learn to ignore the daily Comex price of Silver. Gold and Silver will continue to be an important part of my future holdings, but going forward I am beginning diversification into other metals. Here is a brief overview of some of the rare industrial metals I like and why I believe they are a good choice for anyone who believes in holding physical metals as part of their asset strategy.
There are many who believe the world is in a recession and this may be true in the USA, EU, and other Western nations. There are a few of us who still believe that the speed of industry and commerce is accelerating. I have spent time in Africa, had an opportunity to live in Europe for a few years and I currently live in Panama. This experience has opened my eyes to what is happening outside of the USA. What I see is a great mass of people who were once walking now driving cars. These same people are talking on mobile phones, watching television on a flat screen, using their laptop at a cafe, getting better medical care, flying on vacations, living in modern homes and working jobs that require technology. This is happening across the planet! Can you imagine the impact on demand for rare industrial metals from countries of the BRIC, (Brazil, Russia, India, China), with the size of their populations? Like it or not commercialization was tested in the USA and was a huge success and now it has been exported worldwide. Here in Panama with a population of just over 3 Million we are adding 3000 automobiles a month to the roads. There are enough mobile phones in Panama to give every citizen 3 handsets. All of this takes a lot of natural resources and metals. Below are some of the important metals I would like to introduce to you.
Tantalum, the rare technical and industrial metal that gives technology the ability to be compact. Have you ever wondered why we no longer have to carry around mobile phones the size of a brick? The tantalum capacitor was a revolutionary invention for the world. Today you find tantalum in all of your personal electronics. Tantalum is now being used in in medical implants because it is non-toxic and does not react with body fluids. It is also used in jet aircraft as an alloying agent. Current worldwide production of tantalum is approximately 1160t annually. By 2030 just the demand is estimated to be 1410t. A few years back there was a lot of controversy surrounding tantalum because of its “Conflict Metal” tag. The metal was originally being mined in the Congo but most tantalum is mined in Australia, Brazil, and Canada.
Indium, how do you like that touch screen on your mobile phone? This rare technical and industrial metal has become a star among the elements recently. Indium’s uses in phones, computers, semi-conductors and televisions are well known. The one use that I would really like to highlight is in CIGS (copper-indium-gallium-selenide) thin film solar cells. These solar panels are the latest technology to hit the solar industry. Recently we have heard India, Japan, USA, Germany, Spain and many other countries announce huge solar initiatives. India alone signed into law a US $19 billion plan to produce 20 GW of solar power by 2020. Under the plan, the use of solar-powered equipment and applications would be made compulsory on all government buildings, as well as hospitals and hotels. This initiative alone will use up all the entire world’s production of solar cells. According to the USGS 84% of all indium production is currently used in solar cell production. Current worldwide production of Indium is approximately 600t per year. The future amount of indium required will depend greatly on the solar industry. Indium is mined in China, Canada, Bolivia and Japan.
Cobalt, have you driven a hybrid or electric vehicle lately? This rare technical and industrial metal is the one of the elements that makes the batteries in these cars possible. Cobalt is also used in pigments, super-alloys, non-corrosive medical implants, dental implants and jet engines. The top use today is as an alloy to make metals resistant to corrosion. The one I see real promise in is the use of hybrid and electric vehicle batteries. By 2012 the estimated sales of hybrid vehicles worldwide is approximately 2.2 Million and by 2015 to be at least 10% of the world auto market. Currently the biggest hurdle to these vehicles is the added cost and the ability to produce enough batteries to meet the demand. Cobalt has gained a lot of attention since the London Metal Exchange (LME) launched a cobalt contract in February 2010. Current worldwide production of cobalt is approximately 57,500t annually. The future is bright for cobalt. Every aircraft that goes in the air and every hybrid vehicle sold will put greater pressure on the supply of this metal. Cobalt is mined in Australia, Congo, Russia, Zambia and a few other countries.
These are just a few of the metals that our world needs to operate and the future is looking great for all commodities. I like the rare technical and industrial metals because of the tight supply and all of the wonderful uses for them. The mining of these metals is often a by-product of base metal like copper, lead and zinc. Most of the large deposits have been found and are in production. This translates into a very tight supply for the future and profits for investors. Silver and Gold have been my metals of choice for many years, but I see great opportunity for the person who is adventurous and willing to add another asset to their portfolio before the masses catch on.
By: Randy Hilarski – The Rare Metals Guy
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).
Tantalum and Niobium (Columbium) Market Review Published: February, 2011 Pages: 63 http://mcgroup.co.uk/researches/tantalum-and-niobium-columbium
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.