Supply Threats Persist For Thin-Film Solar Materials Due To Competition

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.

(See “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

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

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

China Now Controls the Solar Industry

Recently American solar companies like Solyndra, Evergreen Solar and Spectrawatt have filed for bankruptcy. These events may lead investors to believe that Solar is finished.

The US solar industry was hit hard by announcements out of Europe that some nations, like Italy, were scaling back their expenditures on solar due to their debt crisis. At the same time we have nations like India announcing a US $19 billion plan to produce 20GW of solar power by the year 2020.

Where will the solar panels for this market be manufactured?

India does not have sufficient rare industrial metal inventories or rare earth metal production to meet the demands of the government plan.

China has positioned itself as the country with 97% control over the majority of rare industrial metals and rare earth metals needed to produce high efficiency solar panels.

What does this mean for companies producing solar panels?

Among many other reasons for restricting exports of rare metals, China wants companies to produce the products in China to keep its workforce employed. If companies want to import metals from China in to produce the panels in other nations they will have to pay much higher prices for the metals due to taxes, shipping, export costs and other import costs. Accordingly, The US manufacturers will have a difficult time competing with the manufacturers in China.

The other issue that the companies do not want to talk about is government subsidies and tax breaks. Jason Burack the co-author of the, ¨Dragon Metals Report¨, and owner of recently said, ¨Message to all CEOs in solar, “Switch immediately to the best Solar panel technology using materials like rare earths, rare industrial metals and graphene and stop relying on the government for subsidies to produce inferior technology panels the market does not want, also a successful long term business model for any company should not be to rely on getting all of your revenue and contracts from the government, which is what many solar companies have done¨.

There are three, ¨Thin-Film PV¨ kinds of solar panels.

1. CdTe or Cadmium Telluride with an efficiency of 6%-11%.

2. a-Si or Amorphous Silicon with an efficiency of 6%-12%

3. CIGS or Copper Indium Gallium Selenide with an efficiency of 10%-20%

CIGS Advantages:

A. Highest energy yield

B. No environmentally hazardous materials

C. You can mold the panels to fit many applications

D. They can possibly bring the cost of solar energy panels down to below $1 per watt.

 The other technology on the horizon is graphene composite solar panels. They are made of copper, molybdenum and graphite. Molybdenum and graphite have both been deemed highly critical to national security for many nations. Once again China has a powerful position because they control over 80% of the graphite market. So once again China has the foresight to see the technologies on the horizon and has positioned itself to prosper.

Currently 89% of the total installed solar panels worldwide are located in Germany, Japan and the USA. In the coming years we will see a growing demand from China for its own solar needs. Between China and India the demand for solar panels will far exceed our current ability to produce the panels. The costs of solar are coming down and the closer we are to grid parity, the more use of solar we will see. Since many of the metals used to produce these panels have been deemed critical to many nations national security, the prices of these metals are bound to stay elevated. China has shown that it will continue to restrict the exports of the rare industrial and rare earth metals further tightening the supply chains.

By: Randy Hilarski - The Rare Metals Guy

U.S. Preparing for the Coming Shortages in Metals and Minerals

Many if not most metals, rare earth minerals and other elements used to make everything from photovoltaic panels and cellphone displays to the permanent magnets in cutting edge new wind generators and motors will become limited in availability. Geologists are warning of shortages and bottlenecks of some metals due to an insatiable demand for consumer products.

 2010 saw China restrict the export of neodymium, which is used in wind generators and motors. The move was said to direct the supplies toward a massive wind generation project within China. What happened was a two-tiered price for neodymium formed, one inside China and another, higher price, for the rest of the world.

Dr. Gawen Jenkin, of the Department of Geology, University of Leicester, and the lead convenor of the Fermor Meeting of the Geological Society of London that met to discuss this issue is reported in the journal Nature Geoscience, highlighting the dangers in the inexorable surge in demand for metals.

Dr Jenkin said: “Mobile phones contain copper, nickel, silver and zinc, aluminum, gold, lead, manganese, palladium, platinum and tin. More than a billion people will buy a mobile in a year — so that’s quite a lot of metal. And then there’s the neodymium in your laptop, the iron in your car, the aluminum in that soft drinks can — the list goes on…”

Jenkin continues, “With ever-greater use of these metals, are we running out? That was one of the questions we addressed at our meeting. It is reassuring that there’s no immediate danger of ‘peak metal’ as there’s quite a lot in the ground, still — but there will be shortages and bottlenecks of some metals like indium due to increased demand. That means that exploration for metal commodities is now a key skill. It’s never been a better time to become an economic geologist, working with a mining company. It’s one of the better-kept secrets of employment in a recession-hit world.”

There’s a “can’t be missed” clue on education and employment prospects. “And a key factor in turning young people away from the large mining companies — their reputation for environmental unfriendliness — is being turned around as they make ever-greater efforts to integrate with local communities for their mutual benefit,” said Jenkin.

Among the basics that need to be grasped to understand the current state of affairs are how rare many metals, minerals and elements really are. Some are plentiful, but only found in rare places or are difficult to extract. Indium, for instance, is a byproduct of zinc mining and extraction.

Economics professor Roderick Eggert of the Colorado School of Mines explains at the U.S. Geological Survey meeting indium is not economically viable to extract unless zinc is being sought in the same ore. Others are just plain scarce, like rhenium and tellurium, which only exist in very small amounts in Earth’s crust.

There are two fundamental responses to this kind of situation: use less of these minerals or improve the extraction of them from other ores in other parts of the world. The improved extraction methods seem to be where most people are heading.

Kathleen Benedetto of the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, Committee on Natural Resources, U.S. House of Representatives explains the Congress’ position for now by saying in a report abstract, “China’s efforts to restrict exports of mineral commodities garnered the attention of Congress and highlighted the need for the United States to assess the state of the Nation’s mineral policies and examine opportunities to produce rare earths and other strategic and critical minerals domestically. Nine bills have been introduced in the House and Senate to address supply disruptions of rare earths and other important mineral commodities.”

Another prominent session presenter Marcia McNutt, director of the U.S. Geological Survey adds in her report abstract, “Deposits of rare earth elements and other critical minerals occur throughout the Nation.” That information puts the current events in the larger historical perspective of mineral resource management, which has been the U.S. Geological Survey’s job for more than 130 years. McNutt points out something interested citizens should be aware of, “The definition of ‘a critical mineral or material’ is extremely time dependent, as advances in materials science yield new products and the adoption of new technologies result in shifts in both supply and demand.”

The geopolitical implications of critical minerals have started bringing together scientists, economists and policy makers. Monday Oct 10th saw the professors presenting their research alongside high-level representatives from the U.S. Congress and Senate, the Office of the President of the U.S., the U.S. Geological Survey, in a session at the meeting of the Geological Society of America in Minneapolis.

Those metals, rare earth minerals and elements are basic building materials for much of what makes energy efficiency, a growing economy, lots of employment and affordable technology possible. Its good to see some action, if it’s only talking for now. At least the people who should be keeping the system working are sensing the forthcoming problem.


Solar cell breakthrough could hit 40 percent efficiency

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.

by Candace Lombardi

Tellurium, is there enough?

Tellurium (te-LOOR-i-em) is an element discovered by Franz Joseph Muller Von Reichenstein, a Romanian mining official in 1782. His work was forgotten until 1798 when a German Chemist Martin Heinrich Klaproth named the new element Tellurium and gave all credit for it discovery to Reichenstein.

Tellurium is element number 52 on the periodic table it is a semi-metallic, crystalline and brittle. It is usually found as a dark gray powder. Be wary when handling this element it can give a person a foul smell for a considerable amount of time.

The main supply source of tellurium is as a by-product of copper mining, approximately 90%. It is the rarest of all the by-product metals, with the exception of Gold. The amount of tellurium in the earth’s crust is about .005 ppm. There are estimates of 150-500 t annually produced. The amount produced is very difficult to verify. For example the USA, Australia, Belgium, China, Germany, Kazakhstan, Phillipines and Russia do not report how much they mine or recycle each year for national security reasons. According to the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) the maximum possible annual production would be no more than 1,600 t per year. The global market for tellurium is miniscule compared to the copper market in turn this gives little incentive to the mining companies to invest in better, more efficient ways of extracting it.

The uses of tellurium include alloying component, semi-conductors, photo-diodes, solar cells, blasting caps, optical storage (CD-RW), computer memory (RAM), pyrotechnics, glass, ceramic paints and thermoelectric cooling devices. The largest use is as an alloying component to steel, aluminum, copper, tin and lead. It is used to improve the machinability of steel and copper.

The most exciting use of tellurium is in photovoltaic cells made from thin films of cadmium telluride. These solar panels are cheaper in cost per watt of electricity generating capacity than the traditional silicon panels. The firms making these solar panels will need approximately 80-100 t of tellurium per gigawatt of photovoltaic cell production. As stated earlier the annual production estimate is 150-500t. That means that the solar industry itself could use up most of the world’s production of tellurium in the coming years. There is serious debate as to whether the amount of global supply can meet the need of the solar industry.

For example in July 2009, India unveiled 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 in all government buildings, as well as hospitals and hotels. It has been said that this initiative alone will use up all the world’s production of solar cells.

In 2004 you could purchase tellurium for $10 per kg. Then the solar industry came along and disrupted the market. In August 2011 the price is hovering around $360 per kg. I find this to be an exciting moment in history. We are seeing commodity prices rise all around us. The population of the world is exploding. The Chinese are tightening their grips on their supplies of rare technical and rare earth metals.

There is a need for cleantech like never before and here we have an element in very tight supply. The next few years are going to be a very interesting time in the commodities market. I look forward to seeing where tellurium goes from here.

By: Randy Hilarski - The Rare Metals Guy

The Rare Industrial Metals and the World

Neodymium Magnets

Over the last year the markets have been up and down.  One sector of metals has been rising steadily for years.  This is the Rare Industrial Metals and Rare Earth sector.  One way or another everyone on the planet is dependent on these metals.  Imagine a world without them; no cell phones, no iPads, no LCD’s, no lasers, no jet aircraft, no electric vehicles, no alternative energies and no nuclear energy.  National Geographic calls the rare earth complex of elements, ¨The Secret Ingredient of Almost Everything¨.

Something is happening under the radar that is having a huge impact on the price of many of the metals.  China has a 90% control of all Rare Industrial Metals.  China has decided to cut its exports of metals like tungsten, cobalt, indium, tellurium, tantalum and gallium.  The Chinese believe that if they make the prices of these metals out of reach for European, Japanese and American industry the industries will have to bring their jobs to China.  For example, this is already having an effect on the magnets industry.  These magnets are critical for electric vehicles, wind power and many other applications.  The USA, UK, EU, Japan and South Korea have all put the elements needed for the magnet industry and many others on their critical lists.

Over the last year, China has had a slash fest.  In 2010 they cut a whopping 72% of their RIM export quotas for the last part of the year.  In December, they again whittled 35% off the quota for the first half of this year and are talking about another 30% for the fall of 2011.   Some speculate that the country will completely shut out the world by 2014 in order to secure their own demand and manufacturing dominance.

Obviously this is creating somewhat of an international crisis.  Nations with technology backbones are currently taking heed and hedging themselves with alternative suppliers – and they are limited.

In the US, politicians are getting involved pointing out how critical RIMs / Rare Earth Elements (REEs) are to National security.  Congressman Mike Coffman (R-CO) is proposing the RESTART Act of 2011 which essentially admits the US dropped the ball while depending on China to supply these vital resources.  The act proposes to jumpstart a RIM/REE supply chain in the US over the course of five years.

There is no doubt other producers will pop onto the scene due to rising values.  Many organizations are now making efforts to explore and exploit in light of recent economically feasible price ranges.  Despite their efforts however, there are no indications the supply will outweigh demand in the short, medium or long term.  With the exploding technology sectors and a push for clean energy, industry simply won’t let it happen.

What’s interesting is that RIMs are very inelastic.  Their economic presence is so small in the supply chain that they barely affect end users.  Take for instance indium, critical to flat panel TV’s, smart phones and solar CIGS (copper, indium, gallium selenide) solar cells.  In 2003, the metals’ price was pegged at $60/Kg.  Today, in a world with an average annual output over 1.2 billion smart phones and 200 million flat screens, Indium hovers around $800/kg in China before exorbitant export taxes and other duties, which in turn increases the price by 100% or more for the Western world. Despite this increase the public hasn’t felt a significant blow.  In fact, many of these gadgets are getting cheaper.

As we eventually see more of an abundant supply in years to come, it will likely be allocated immediately.  With emerging powerhouses like India and China growing at alarming rates, technology and clean energy advancing into the 21st century, it’s difficult to conceive how new sources will keep up.  Nations will do their best to bring mines online to produce these critical rare industrial metals, the problem is that in the west these processes take years.  The technology is there to produce metals much cleaner than in the past.  Nations have a choice to make, either mine and have jobs in your jurisdiction or let China do the mining and have all the industrial production jobs.

By: Randy Hilarski - The Rare Metals Guy

Rare earth elements vital to electronics industry

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.

David Boothroyd

Alternative Metals to Gold and Silver

Rare Industrial Metal - Cobalt

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

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.

The Rarest Rare Earth on Earth

Short seller Jim Chanos is well known for his negative assessments of China, especially Chinese real estate. One of his more colorful expressions about China’s economy is “the Chinese are on a treadmill to Hell.” We’re sure the Chinese don’t mind criticism from Chanos, or anyone else,€“ as long as it convinces as many non-Chinese as possible that China has massive problems and represents no threat. From that point of view, kudos to Chanos.

Unfortunately, that expression really applies to the West, and to the U.S. in particular. Step back and look at the amount of money we continue to pump into our economy. Look at the national debt as it surpasses $14 trillion,€“ with a t. Look at the multibillion-dollar deficits that we now battle to bring under control.

Billions of dollars continue to flood into our economy, courtesy of the Fed’s program of quantitative easing, but look at the results. Last month an additional 50,000 were newly employed, a number not significantly different than zero. If anyone actually got a job,  great. Yet with current expectations of economic growth now around 2%, the unemployed continue to hold a very short straw. With productivity gains averaging about 2%, that means the economy can achieve the current growth rate without adding any jobs, never mind the increases in the population which in time will add to the unemployment rate.

The employment data weren’t the only worrisome figures. There’s an array of troubling statistics, ranging from manufacturing to consumer sentiment to housing. In fact, consumer sentiment is the most “fuzzy” of all the data sets, but it really does set the tone. Consumer spending represents 70% of our economy, and until that segment improves, it’s difficult to make a case for a stronger economy.

We don’t want to get too carried away with our bearish rant,€“ but when you look at the employment figures and other data, they don’t make for cheerful historical parallels. After all, it was in the early 1930s that Hoover decided that the way to prosperity was balancing the budget. Need we say more?

Look at the chart again. First, note that this chart, dismal as it seems, does have a positive connotation,€“ or at least at first blush a positive connotation. It certainly suggests a deeply depressed dollar, which explains a paradox of the current U.S. stock market. Those U.S. companies doing business abroad have done fairly well. That’s because all those profits are converted back into dollars from other, rising currencies. That means a tremendous boosts to profits, which translates into a stronger market. But how long can that continue?

That question actually doesn’t revolve around monetary policy, because how much choice does the U.S. government have if all the money in the world just keeps us marching in place? Or, to be more precise, if it just keeps us from sliding further downward. Since the beginning of the century, the average real household income of Americans has declined about 10%. Yet the printing presses continue to work overtime.

But all the paper money in the world cannot make more oil or more copper or more titanium – though it will make all commodities more expensive. And that is why our average real income continues to fall despite all this money.

So the real reason why the S&P (and virtually everything else American) is depressed compared to the Australian dollar and other resource currencies and countries is because we simply don’t have the resources. And without those resources, our standard of living has to go down.

When you’re in an economy in which a $35,000 household income is considered well above the poverty line, but it takes $100 a week at the pump to transport the family, you have problems. (In addition to the “oil tax,” copper, silver and other necessity metals have gone up dramatically, despite weakened demand in this country.)

Of all commodities, Americans focus on oil,€“ and for good reason: It’s the commodity we consume the most of, and we’re heavily dependent on foreign oil sources. But in the resource field, the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Ultimately, we have to focus on what is scarcest.

And we have to change the way we think about scarcity. There’s too much emphasis on analyzing individual resources rather than considering related packages of resources. “Scarce” means whatever resource takes the most other resources to obtain. In any closed system (and the Earth as a whole is the ultimate closed system) any critical resource becoming ever more scarce is enough to sink the system, or at least to dramatically change the system into one in which material wellbeing sinks or population shrinks.

In short, the scarcity of oil is connected to the scarcity of silver, copper, rare earths - even the transition metal zirconium. And the more research we do into metal scarcity, the more concerned we become. Lately we have been ever more concerned about rare earths,€“ not because they are so scarce, but because they are so difficult to produce and because there are so few concentrated deposits in the world. And those that do exist seem to be getting very short shrift.

The two most significant non-Chinese deposits of heavy rare earths,€“ which are the ones that really count because they are needed for magnets that are used in everything from wind turbines to defense equipment,€“ are in Canada. One is Avalon Rare Metals (AVL); the other is Quest Rare Minerals (QRM). These are small companies, with a combined market value of about $800 million, which means most mutual funds can’t even look at them. They’re also unabashedly speculative investments.

But as sources of rare earths, they may be critical. Avalon controls the Nechalacho Rare Earth Element Deposit in Canada’s Northwest Territories. This strike is believed to contain not just REEs, but the heavy rare earths (HREEs) like dysprosium that are vital in the creation of ultra-strong industrial magnets. Quest has five REE sites in Eastern Canada, including Strange Lake, Misery Lake and Plaster Rock.

The bad news: in our opinion, it would take an industrial effort on the level of the Manhattan Project to make these exciting finds truly productive before the REE crunch hits us for good. Finding rare earths are only a small part of the process of turning the ore into usable materials. Separation, refining, fabricating all take huge capital investments. And we haven’€™t even mentioned the human capital,€“ the engineers and miners - of whom there is a deadly dearth in the American labor force.

As a result, absent massive government intervention, these heavy rare earths are unlikely to find their way into products for another decade or so. In the meantime, we must rely on the Chinese, who do have the necessary skills and equipment. You just can’€™t make this stuff up.

The Australian Iluka Resources (ILKAF.PK) is another industrial miner, but focused on zirconium and titanium instead of rare earths. The calculus around zirconium is very similar to that of rare earths. And with zirconium prices rising from $340 a metric ton in 2003 to $2000 in 2011, Iluka is poised to meet an enormous, growing, and unmet demand.

 In the end, we feel investors should choose resources over currency (except for gold and silver which remain the first-choice currencies). Monetary policy can’t solve every problem, and U.S. monetary policy is far more constrained than it was a decade ago. The dollar cannot decrease forever. At some point, the declining dollar will raise bond yields, and then the treadmill will really begin to accelerate and tilt even further south.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours

Author: Dr. Stephen Leeb Article June 10, 2011

About the Author:
Dr. Stephen Leeb is a recognized authority on the stock market, macroeconomic trends and commodities, especially oil and precious metals.

Metals Through the Roof

Speakers at the Mining Indaba in Cape Town this week seemed as one in warning of a near-term supply-demand squeeze and some solid price increases for a swathe of metals.

They made the point that China and India will be central to minerals demand growth. And among the so-called rare-earth metals that are crucial to many of today’s high-tech products, China is the leading producer and is curbing exports unless they are already processed into manufactured products. As consultant Jack Lifton saw it, stronger demand has not (and cannot) lead to greater production.

Many of the metals that are needed for items such as solar panels, super-conductors and jet engines are produced as by-products of lead, zinc, copper, manganese or aluminium mining. There is no chance of increasing production of indium, gallium, germanium, rhenium, thorium and tellurium from primary mines.

It is not the same for copper, the metal showing the second-highest price increase over the past year, lead was first and zinc third. These are metals that better reflect the state of demand in the real economy.

Chinese demand is growing and, there are supply constraints. New mines cannot be brought on stream at the flick of a switch. Iron ore is in much the same boat. Price rises will be far more restrained than they were a year or two ago.

China Will Continue to Dominate the Rare Earths Market in 2011

Editor’s Note: Prices for many precious and base metals hit record highs in 2010, as economic uncertainty rattled around the globe. What does 2011 hold for gold, silver, platinum, palladium, copper and other metals? Kitco News reporters have prepared a series of stories which examine what is in store for 2011, not only for metals but for currencies, stocks and the overall economy. These stories will be posted on during the holiday period and also will be featured in a special section. Stay tuned for video highlights as well.

(Kitco News) - China’s dominance of global rare earths output will continue in 2011, yet at the same time other nations are starting to make preparations to pull more metal from the ground and reduce China’s stranglehold on the market in future years.

Until the last few months, the mention of rare earth metals likely would elicit a blank stare unless the conversation involved someone in a specific sector that uses the elements.

Rare earth metals, known as REEs, burst into the mainstream media limelight during the past several months, with articles in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, on major wire services and televised segments on CNBC. The big exposure came with a flap that developed when China, which controls 95% to 97% of the current REE global output, stopped exporting to the Japanese.

Fears continue over the supply of rare earth metals, which consist of 17 elements used in creating a variety of consumer, environmental and industrial-driven technological products. Despite some movement expected in 2011 and beyond to develop greater supply from other global sources, the Chinese still hold the shovel.

“They have the ability to dictate the market if they want to,” said Charl Malan, senior metals and mining analyst at Van Eck Global. The company offers a number of metals-related investments and this fall started the first U.S.-listed exchange-traded fund for equities of companies involved with producing, refining and recycling rare earth/strategic metals.

“With rare earths growth in the next five years about 225,000 tons, that’s about 9% (year-on-year) growth number,” Malan said. “Currently, supply is about 125,000 tons, out of which China produces about 120,000 tons.”

Major importers have come to depend on China due to its ability to manufacture REEs at a reasonable cost. The embargo China placed on exports to Japan has been devastating to the Japanese and shows the strength of the REE demand China commands. Japan was the leading importer of REEs.

“News out of China is a big part of it,” said The Mercenary Geologist Mickey Fulp. “It is a purely speculative sector. As news comes out of China about export quotas, relaxing export quotas or news of any kind on that regard supply and demand fundamentals of the rare earth elements sector is going to affect prices.”

Fulp said China controls well over 90% of the current supply. The dominance is mainly because the Chinese have developed the ability to manufacture these minerals in such a way that the rest of the world could be falling behind quickly, not because rare earth metals are really that rare.

“For me, if I look at the bigger picture for rare earths, this is what’s essential,” Malan of Van Eck said. “There’s an abundance of rare earths around the world. It’s not so much the mining, it’s the fact we don’t have the manufacturing capacity and we don’t have the skill sets or the equipment. That’s my biggest concern.”

Malan believes that China has invested its resources in such a way that it is now properly positioned for the future in terms of manufacturing capacity, but more importantly, well placed from a knowledge standpoint.

“To have the refined product really work, you obviously need very highly educated, highly skilled people specifically within an industry,” Malan said. “There’s something like 800 people with Ph.D.s specifically linked to rare earths. They don’t just focus on the equipment, the processing and the manufacturing side of it but also the manpower and the knowledge base behind it.”

A half century ago China was not among the leading producers of REEs. Between 1950 and 1980, the U.S., India, South Africa and Brazil were considered to be the front-runners in production. During the 1980s, China began underselling competitors, leading to consumers purchasing cheap supply from the Chinese.

This had a negative effect on REE mines in several countries, leading to most being shut down. Molycorp Minerals mine in California was once the largest REE producer in the world but was forced to close in 2002. The mine is set to reopen in 2011 and should begin contributing production by 2012.
“In 2012, there will be additional supply from Molycorp which will be 20,000 (metric) tons,” said Marino G. Pieterse, publisher and editor of Gold Letter International, Uranium Letter International and Rare Earths Elements International.
Molycorp is not the only rare earths company beginning REE production in the next few years.
“In 2013 you’ll have three other companies that will begin producing REEs,” Pieterse said. “Frontier Rare Earths will produce 10-20,000 (metric) tons, Greenland Minerals and Earths LTD will have 40,000 (metric) tons and then there’s Rare Elements Resources LTD, which will have 20,000 (metric) tons.”
Lynas Corporation in Australia is also slated to begin REE production, with tonnage reaching over 20,000.
Analysts said that the move towards wider production could mean there will be an over-supply of REEs by 2014-2015, which will bring stability to prices.
Despite the title of being rare, REEs are in abundance. With countries other than China developing the means to manufacture these metals coupled with the need to introduce and maintain greener technologies, REEs are expected to perform well in the coming years.
“I see bigger and better things for the entire sector,” Fulp said.
Aluminum alloy: aerospace
Phosphors, ceramics, lasers
Re-chargeable batteries
Batteries, catalysts, glass polishing
Magnets, glass colorant
Magnets, lasers, glass
Nuclear batteries
Magnets, lasers, lighting
TV color phosphors: red
Superconductors, magnets
Phosphors: green, fluorescent lights
Magnets, lasers
Lasers, vanadium steel
X-ray source, ceramics
Infrared lasers, high reactive glass
Catalyst, PET scanners

Silver Brighter future than gold

20 Dec, 2010, 02.45AM IST, Vivek Kaul and Prashant Mahesh,ET Bureau
Silver: Brighter future than gold?

You’d probably laugh it off if someone claimed silver is the hottest metal, given gold’s runaway prices. Since the beginning of the year gold is up about 20%. Silver, in the same period, has given a whopping 60% return. “This relative outperformance will continue,” says Vijay Bhambwani, CEO,

Silver price is at a 30-year high of $30 an ounce (Rs 45,665 per kg). Let us do a quick analysis to find out if you should invest in it.

Riding on high demand: Silver has more industrial applications than any other metal. A recent report by Hinde Capital says: “It’s the best conductor of both heat and electricity, the most reflective, and second-most ductile and malleable element, after gold.” The white metal is also being put to several new uses-water purification, air-handling systems and a natural biocide.

“New products using silver’s biocidal qualities are being developed each year; clothing, bandages, toothbrushes, door-knobs (flu-protection), keyboards, the list goes on,” Hinde Capital report points out.

On supply side, things are grim: Silver analyst Theodore Butler at Butler Research says, “Silver inventories are down from 10 billion ounce in 1940 to 1 billion ounce today. Gold inventories, in contrast, are up 4 billion ounce since 1940, according to World Gold Council.” The world has five times more gold than silver, he says. Though this may be extreme, it’s true that silver will soon become scarce. Jeff Nielson, editor, says he would side with a more conservative 6:1 gold silver ratio. “This is small enough, given the 47:1 price ratio.”

Also even though the earth’s crust has 17.5 more silver than gold, production of silver cannot be ramped up overnight. Almost two-thirds of the silver that is mined comes as a byproduct from mining of metals like copper, lead and zinc. So it isn’t easy to ramp up production straight away. Data from the silver institute suggests silver mine production rose 4% to 709.6 million ounce in 2009.

No recycling of silver: Silver recycling isn’t always possible primarily because it is used in very small quantities as an industrial metal, and not always monetarily viable to recycle. Even at its current price, recycling doesn’t make sense. As Nielson pus it, “We must remember that virtually all the gold in the world has been conserved (recycled) because it’s high value economically justified recycling. So, may be when silver advances to somewhere between $50 and $100 an ounce, we should start to see much more recycling.”

High price in short and long term: Mismatch between price and demand makes silver a great long-term bet. “For most of the last 5,000 years, gold silver price ratio averaged 15:1. The current ratio of over 45:1 is unjustified and unsustainable,” says Neilson. The logic behind this is that silver is roughly 17 times more plentiful than gold (though its supply is rising at a lower pace). So with current gold price at about $1,400 an ounce, silver should be around $93 an ounce. That’s nearly three times silver’s current price. If market corrects this ratio and silver price rises to this level, it’s a huge bounty for investors. As Butler says, “I’ll be amazed if we don’t climb past $100 an ounce in the next three to five years. The amazing thing is, despite silver [prices] being up five times from its lows of about $4 an ounce, the current investment thesis is better than ever. That’s because silver is getting greater investor awareness.”

Prospects are high in the short term too. “In the next couple of months, silver could trade between Rs 46,000 and Rs 47,000 a kg,” says Rakesh Varasia, research officer, Indian Bullion Metal Association. “Inventories are so severely stressed that the next spike in 2011 will most likely take silver to or above $50 an ounce (about Rs 75,000 a kg),” adds Nielson.

Gold goes up, silver follows: Gold prices have been going up for a while given countries around the world either printing money or threatening to do so, leading to investors betting on gold. “Relentless debasing of fiat currencies will inflate gold further,” says Bhambwani of His views are echoed by Ritesh Jain, head, fixed income at Canara Robeco Mutual Fund. “Silver is seen to be a poor cousin of gold. If gold prices rise, silver will follow closely,” he says.

How to buy silver: The simplest way is to buy silver is through silver exchange-traded funds. But they’re not available in India. You can always buy bars and coins but storing them can be a problem. The most practical solution is to buy e-silver. E-silver was launched recently by National Spot Exchange. This is similar to buying shares and holding them in a demat form.

National Spot Exchange has 370 brokers and 40 depository participants (DPs) empanelled on it. All you’ve to do is approach your broker and sign a client registration form, one-time cost of which is Rs 100. Annual depository maintainence charges could be between Rs 300 and Rs 600 a year.

Whenever you transact, the brokerage charge is between 0.25% and 0.50%, and depository transaction fee is Rs 25-50 per transaction. For physical delivery of the metal, you have to pay Rs 200. Currently silver is delivered at National Spot Exchange centres in Delhi, Mumbai and Ahmedabad.

But even in this case, investors need to be careful not bet all their money on silver. “Since silver is a volatile commodity, retail investors should invest through the systematic investment plan route,” says Karun Verma, senior research analyst, Religare Commodities.