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Rhenium

Strategic Rare Metals – Critical for the Future of US Defense

Rare Strategic Metals

Rare Strategic Metals

As more and more dollars get printed, it gets harder to foresee a future that doesn’t include significant inflation. If you’re worried about inflation, you can protect yourself by purchasing tangible assets with fixed values. Gold, oil and gas interests, and real estate are all examples of assets that typically hedge against inflation. However, if you aren’t including strategic rare metals in your investment portfolio, you’re missing out on a major opportunity.

Strategic Rare Metals

These compounds are naturally occurring elements — just like gold or aluminum. Like gold, they are relatively rare. Unlike gold, which is primarily used for investment or for leisure spending, strategic rare metals are extremely important in the manufacture of many of the goods that you use. You might not have heard of iridium, for instance, but it’s used in light-emitting diodes and in flat-screen displays. It is also 10 times rarer than gold, based on its natural occurrence in the Earth’s crust.

Much of gold’s value comes from popular opinion, rather than from its intrinsic usefulness. It is relatively unimportant for industrial purposes and equally attractive jewelry can be made from different compounds. While it has been held to be a valuable compound for thousands of years, there is relatively little justification underpinning that belief. Strategic metals, on the other hand, are valuable because they’re necessary. Fuel cells, computer chips, optical lenses, pharmaceuticals and military devices can’t be made without them. This gives them real, intrinsic value, and can make them a particularly useful tool to protect your wealth against future erosion in the dollar.

Metals and Defense

The defense industry uses strategic rare metals heavily:

  • Gallium. Communications devices use gallium.
  • Iridium. Iridium is used in many optical applications including night vision, laser tracking and target recognition systems.
  • Rhenium. The ability of rhenium to withstand extreme temperatures makes it crucial for fabricating parts in military jet engines.
  • Tantalum. Weapons systems designers that need small, but high-capacity, capacitors turn to tantalum alloys.
  • Tungsten. Once used heavily for incandescent light bulbs, tungsten’s hardness makes it an important part of penetrating armaments and other projectiles.

Without these strategic rare metals, the nature of military hardware would have to change overnight. During both good times and extremely bad times, the military has the ability to spend either because tax revenues justify it or because the government wants to protect itself. With this in mind, the rare metals that the military needs to function can be an excellent hedging investment.

Owning Strategic Rare Metals

Owning strategic metal isn’t like buying copper or aluminum. Many of them have prices that are roughly comparable to that of gold, so the quantities that you typically need to buy are reasonable. Like gold, you can buy physical metals rather than depending on a paper-based investment where you don’t truly have ownership that you can count on. Rare strategic metals can even be held in a self-directed IRA and can even be stored overseas, giving you a foothold in another country in the event of severe instability in the United States.

Whether or not you realize it, strategic rare metals power most of the devices in your life as well as driving the country’s military. You’ve benefited from them for years. Now, you can also benefit from their stability and value by including them in your investment portfolio.

 

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Wealth Preservation To Survive the Crash of the US Dollar

Asset Protection

The economy is sometimes an unpredictable and unresponsive organism that could lead to wealth or poverty. Previous market crashes have taught investors and financiers that it is hard to protect assets against the sudden loss of value; with too much volatile risk, you are better off looking for alternative ways of securing your assets.

The Need is Real

The rising of commodity and service prices does not reflect in the increase of your income, it only means that you spend more to get the same goods and services you’ve been getting before for less.  The future of wealth preservation in general therefore becomes bleak; Your income or savings do not increase to match the inflation, they are subject to an increased rate of expenditure, which begs the question; how am I assured that my 50K now will get me the same value for investment later?

Since the trend dictates a continuous and steady increase in the cost of living, your savings and investments suffer a reduced value. What measures, if any, can you take to secure the value of your savings and investments? What steps in wealth preservation can you take to ensure a profitable and secured value for money despite the inflation?

Target a Stable Market

Stable markets are basically goods that have  a constant or increasing price with a steady increase in demand. The need to achieve technical sophistication has given rise to the demand for rare metals. These metals are virtually used in almost all household, commercial and industrial appliances. Increasing efforts in innovation are increasing that need, so the prices of these metals are either stable or increasing. This gives rise to the purchase of strategic metals as investments.

Investing in Rare  Metals

These rare metals are a new uncharted ground for investment opportunities. Metals such as Hafnium, Rhenium, Gallium and Indium are an alternative to conventional investments in precious metals. They are a common ingredient in the manufacture of electronic devices and chemical substances. According to National Geographic, eight out of ten devices in the world are manufactured with one or more of these rare metals. This presents a viable and profitable opportunity for wealth preservation.

The Objective and Focused Move

Like all raw materials, rare strategic metals are subject to industrial supply and demand, which means that certain industry sectors provide more viability for investment than others in the mitigation of risk. A focus on industry removes the factors of economical speculation and manipulation since these industries function to match the demand for raw materials and products. Let’s take a look at some of them:

1.    The Solar Energy Industry is trending in the need for strategic metals like Indium, Gallium and Hafnium which are used in the production of Solar Cells, Alloys, Turbines and Electrodes among other uses. This industry is constantly growing as industrial, commercial and residential communities worldwide seek alternative sources of energy to substitute the use of petroleum based fuels

2.    The Construction Industry is the driving infrastructure for real estate and property buildings, and obviously a constantly growing demand across the world. Strategic Metals like Molybdenum, Chromium, Cobalt and Tantalum are used in the production of tools, ceramics, pipes, valves, paint pigments, corrosion resistant equipment, welding materials among many others.

3.    The defense industry covers a large priority in the nation’s agenda, with the use of technology in countering and averting threats, both foreign and domestic. Tantalum, Rhenium, Tungsten, Indium and Gallium are used in electronic components, Laser vision and imaging, projectiles and artillery and aerospace communication devices.

There are more than 7 distinct “Apocalypses” facing the US dollar today.  Learn what the are, and how to protect yourself with this Free video presentation and report.

What are Some of the Uses of Rhenium

Rhenium is a chemical element with the symbol Re and atomic number 75.

Rare Industrial Metal – Rhenium

If you are an investor in rare earth metals (or rare strategic metals), you might want to look at Rhenium for your portfolio.

In 1925, Rhenium was found by chemists Walter Noddack, his soon-to-be wife, Ida Tacke, and the scientist Otto Berg in Germany.   It is the last naturally-occurring element with a stable isotope to be discovered.  Actual production did not move forward for financial reasons until around 1950 when two Rhenium superalloys were created (tungsten-rhenium & molybdenum-rhenium) that proved valuable in industrial applications.

Rhenium is a dense metal that is silvery-white, lustrous, and is high in value due to it’s scarcity and specialized uses.  It is one of the densest metals known and also has one of the highest boiling points.  Rhenium is both ductile (can be formed into thin wires) and malleable (can be flattened into sheets) and is dense enough that it can be reheated and reworked many times without breaking apart.  The most common use of Rhenium is in superalloys – where it is mixed with iron, cobalt or nickel and can withstand extremely high temperatures.

Uses:

  • jet engine parts such as combustion chambers, turbine blades, exhaust nozzles
  • gas turbine engines – like in jets, back up generators, submarines
  • temperature controls – like your home thermostat
  • heating elements – like on your electric stove
  • mass spectrographs – for determining the elemental composition of a sample
  • electrical contacts – such as power switches or buttons
  • electromagnets – found in motors, VCR’s, tape decks, hard drives, and many other products
  • semiconductors- found in radios, computers and telephones and many other electronic devices
  • vacuum tubes – such as inside your TV
  • Gyroscopes
  • micro tubing – such as used in medical devices
  • metallic coatings – such as coating the rocket engines for NASA
  • thermocouples – devices for measuring extremely high temperatures
  • catalyst (combined with platinum) in creating lead-free, high-octane gasoline
  • catalyst in converting petroleum into heating or diesel oil
  • catalyst in the hydrogenation of fine chemicals
  • quantum computers (when combined with silicon)

Aircraft engine manufacturers have been attempting to lower the amount of rhenium used in engines, because global demand for it is in danger of overtaking supply.  This demand for rhenium looks unlikely to diminish and will increase as new uses for it are discovered.  It is definitely worth keeping an eye on in the rare earth metals and rare strategic metals marketplace.  For more detailed information on Rhenium, check out this paper from the USGS Mineral Resources Program that summarizes the most current government data on Rhenium.

 

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Rhenium the Rarest of Rare Strategic Metals

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

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

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

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

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

Uses of Rhenium

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

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

 By: Randy Hilarski – The Rare Metals Guy

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

Rare Earth Elements critical to 80% of Modern Industry.

Rare Earth Elements critical to 80% of Modern Industry

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.

Source: OilPrice.com

Critical Minerals, Elements, Metals, Materials

In this article I am going to take a look at three reports covering what the US and Europe consider critical or strategic minerals and materials.

In its first Critical Materials Strategy, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) focused on materials used in four clean energy technologies:

  • wind turbines: permanent magnets
  • electric vehicles:€“ permanent magnets & advanced batteries
  • solar cells: thin film semi conductors
  • energy efficient lighting: phosphors

The DOE says they selected these particular components for two reasons:

  1. Deployment of the clean energy technologies that use them is projected to increase, perhaps significantly, in the short, medium and long term
  2. Each uses significant quantities of rare earth metals or other key materials

In its report the DOE provided data for nine rare earth elements: yttrium, lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, samarium, europium, terbium and dysprosium as well as indium, gallium, tellurium, cobalt and lithium.

Five of the rare earth metals, dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, europium and yttrium€“ as well as indium, were assessed as most critical in the short term. The DOE defines “€œcriticality”€ as a measure that combines importance to the clean energy economy and risk of supply disruption.

Securing Materials for Emerging Technologies

A Report by the APS Panel on Public Affairs and the Materials Research Society coined the term “€œenergy-critical element”€ (ECE) to describe a class of chemical elements that currently appear critical to one or more new, energy related technologies.

“Energy-related systems are typically materials intensive. As new technologies are widely deployed, significant quantities of the elements required to manufacture them will be needed. However, many of these unfamiliar elements are not presently mined, refined, or traded in large quantities, and, as a result, their availability might be constrained by many complex factors. A shortage of these energy-critical elements (ECEs) could significantly inhibit the adoption of otherwise game-changing energy technologies. This, in turn, would limit the competitiveness of U.S. industries and the domestic scientific enterprise and, eventually, diminish the quality of life in the United States.”

According to the APS and MRS report several factors can contribute to limiting the domestic availability of an ECE:

The element may not be abundant in the earth’€™s crust or might not be concentrated by geological processes

An element might only occur in a few economic deposits worldwide, production might be dominated by and, therefore, subject to manipulation by one or more countries – the United States already relies on other countries for more than 90% of most of the ECEs identified in the report

Many ECEs have, up to this point, been produced in relatively small quantities as by-products of primary metals mining and refining. Joint production complicates attempts to ramp up output by a large factor.

Because they are relatively scarce, extraction of ECEs often involves processing large amounts of material, sometimes in ways that do unacceptable environmental damage

The time required for production and utilization to adapt to fluctuations in price and availability of ECEs is long, making planning and investment difficult

This report was limited to elements that have the potential for major impact on energy systems and for which a significantly increased demand might strain supply, causing price increases or unavailability, thereby discouraging the use of some new technologies.

The focus of the report was on energy technologies with the potential for large-scale deployment so the elements they listed are energy critical:

  • Gallium, germanium, indium, selenium, silver, and tellurium employed in advanced photovoltaic solar cells, especially thin film photovoltaics.
  • Dysprosium, neodymium, praseodymium, samarium and cobalt€“ used in high-strength permanent magnets for many energy related applications, such as wind turbines and hybrid automobiles.
  • Gadolinium (most REEs made this list) for its unusual paramagnetic qualities and europium and terbium for their role in managing the color of fluorescent lighting. Yttrium, another REE, is an important ingredient in energy-efficient solid-state lighting.
  • Lithium and lanthanum, used in high performance batteries.
  • Helium, required in cryogenics, energy research, advanced nuclear reactor designs, and manufacturing in the energy sector.
  •  Platinum, palladium, and other PGEs, used as catalysts in fuel cells that may find wide applications in transportation. Cerium, a REE, is also used as an auto-emissions catalyst.
  • Rhenium, used in high performance alloys for advanced turbines.

 The third report I looked at, “Critical Raw Materials for the EU” listed 14 raw materials which are deemed critical to the European Union (EU): antimony, beryllium, cobalt, fluorspar, gallium, germanium, graphite, indium, magnesium, niobium, platinum group metals, rare earths, tantalum and tungsten.

€œRaw materials are an essential part of both high tech products and every-day consumer products, such as mobile phones, thin layer photovoltaics, Lithium-ion batteries, fibre optic cable, synthetic fuels, among others. But their availability is increasingly under pressure according to a report published today by an expert group chaired by the European Commission. In this first ever overview on the state of access to raw materials in the EU, the experts label a selection of 14 raw materials as “€œcritical”€ out of 41 minerals and metals analyzed. The growing demand for raw materials is driven by the growth of developing economies and new emerging technologies.

For the critical raw materials, their high supply risk is mainly due to the fact that a high share of the worldwide production mainly comes from a handful of countries, for example:

China: €“ Rare Earths Elements (REE)

Russia, South Africa:€“ Platinum Group Elements (PGE)

Democratic Republic of Congo:€“ Cobalt

All four of the following critical materials appear on each list:

  • Rare Earth Elements (REE)
  • Cobalt
  • Platinum Group Elements (PGE)
  • Lithium

The key issues in regards to critical metals are:

  • Finite resources
  • Chinese market dominance in many sectors
  • Long lead times for mine development
  • Resource nationalism/country risk
  • High project development cost
  • Relentless demand for high tech consumer products
  • Ongoing material use research
  • Low substitutability
  • Environmental crackdowns
  • Low recycling rates
  • Lack of intellectual knowledge and operational expertise in the west

 Certainly the rare earth elements, the platinum group of elements and lithium are going to continue receiving investor attention,€“ they are absolutely vital to the continuance of our modern lifestyle. But there are two metals increasingly on my radar screen, one is on all three above critical metals lists and the other soon will be when/if production increases, and in this authors opinion, that’€™s very possible.

Cobalt

A critical or strategic material is a commodity whose lack of availability during a national emergency would seriously affect the economic, industrial, and defensive capability of a country.

The French Bureau de Recherches Géologiques et Minires rates high tech metals as critical, or not, based on three criteria:

  • Possibility (or not) of substitution
  • Irreplaceable functionality
  • Potential supply risks

Many countries classify cobalt as a critical or a strategic metal.

 The US is the world’€™s largest consumer of cobalt and the US also considers cobalt a strategic metal. The US has no domestic production, the United States is 100% dependent on imports for its supply of primary cobalt,€“ currently about 15% of U.S. cobalt consumption is from recycled scrap, resulting in a net import reliance of 85%.

Although cobalt is one of the 30 most abundant elements within the earth’s crust it’s low concentration (.002%) means it’s usually produced as a by-product – cobalt is mainly obtained as a by-product of copper and nickel mining activities.

Scandium

Scandium is a soft, light metal that might have applications in the aerospace industry. With a cost approaching $300 per gram scandium is too expensive for widespread use. Scandium is a byproduct from the extraction of other elements, uranium mining, nickel and cobalt laterite mines and is sold as scandium oxide.

The absence of reliable, secure, stable and long term production has limited commercial applications of scandium in most countries. This is despite a comprehensive body of research and a large number of patents which identify significant benefits for the use of scandium over other elements.

Particularly promising are the properties of :

  • Stabilizing zirconia: Scandia stabilized zirconia has a growing market demand for use as a high efficiency electrolyte in solid oxide fuel cells
  • Scandium-aluminum alloys will be important in the manufacture of fuel cells
  • Strengthening aluminum alloys (0.5% scandium) that could replace entire fleets with much cheaper, lighter and stronger aircraft
  • Alloys of scandium and aluminum are used in some kinds of athletic equipment, such as aluminum baseball bats, bicycle frames and lacrosse sticks
  • Scandium iodide (ScI3) is added to mercury vapor lamps so that they will emit light that closely resembles sunlight

Conclusion

The REEs, PGEs, Lithium and Cobalt are all truly critical to the functioning of our modern society. It’€™s easy to see why they are classified as critical or strategic. Scandium will increasingly find its way into our everyday lives and undoubtedly take its place on the various critical metal lists.

Access to raw materials at competitive prices has become essential to the functioning of all industrialized economies. Cobalt is one of those raw materials, so too will be Scandium.

Are these two critical metals on your radar screen?

If not, maybe they should be.

Richard Mills – Ahead of the Herd | July 14, 2011

Thirteen Exotic Elements We can’t Live Without

From indium touchscreens to hafnium-equipped moonships, the nether regions of the periodic table underpin modern technology,€“ but supplies are getting scarce

AS YOU flick the light switch in your study, an eerie europium glow illuminates your tablet computer, idling on the desk. You unlock it, casually sweeping your finger across its indium-laced touchscreen. Within seconds, pulses of information are pinging along the erbium-paved highways of the internet. Some music to accompany your surfing? No sooner thought than the Beach Boys are wafting through the neodymium magnets of your state-of-the-art headphones.

For many of us, such a scene is mundane reality. We rarely stop to think of the advances in materials that underlie our material advances. Yet almost all our personal gadgets and technological innovations have something in common: they rely on some extremely unfamiliar materials from the nether reaches of the periodic table. Even if you have never heard of the likes of hafnium, erbium or tantalum, chances are there is some not too far from where you are sitting.

You could soon be hearing much more about them, too. Demand for many of these unsung elements is soaring, so much so that it could soon outstrip supply. That’s partly down to our insatiable hunger for the latest gadgetry, but increasingly it is also being driven by the green-energy revolution. For every headphone or computer hard-drive that depends on the magnetic properties of neodymium or dysprosium, a wind turbine or motor for an electric car demands even more of the stuff. Similarly, the properties that make indium indispensable for every touchscreen make it a leading light in the next generation of solar cells.

All that means we are heading for a crunch. In its Critical Materials Strategy, published in December last year, the US Department of Energy (DoE) assessed 14 elements of specific importance to clean-energy technologies. It identified six at “critical” risk of supply disruption within the next five years: indium, and five “rare earth” elements, europium, neodymium, terbium, yttrium and dysprosium. It rates a further three – cerium, lanthanum and tellurium – as “near-critical”.

What’s the fuss?

It’s not that these elements aren’t there: by and large they make up a few parts per billion of Earth’s crust. “We just don’t know where they are,” says Murray Hitzman, an economic geologist at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden. Traditionally, these elements just haven’t been worth that much to us. Such supplies are often isolated as by-products during the mining of materials already used in vast quantities, such as aluminium, zinc and copper. Copper mining, for example, has given us more than enough tellurium, a key component of next-generation solar cells, to cover our present needs – and made it artificially cheap.

“People who are dealing with these new technologies look at the price of tellurium, say, and think, well, this isn’t so expensive so what’s the fuss?” says Robert Jaffe, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He chaired a joint committee of the American Physical Society and the Materials Research Society on “Energy Critical Elements” that reported in February this year. The problem, as the report makes clear, is that the economics changes radically when demand for these materials outstrips what we can supply just by the by. “Then suddenly you have to think about mining these elements directly, as primary ores,” says Jaffe. That raises the cost dramatically – presuming we even know where to dig.

An element’s price isn’t the only problem. The rare earth group of elements, to which many of the most technologically critical belong, are generally found together in ores that also contain small amounts of radioactive elements such as thorium and uranium. In 1998, chemical processing of these ores was suspended at the only US mine for rare earth elements in Mountain Pass, California, due to environmental concerns associated with these radioactive contaminants. The mine is expected to reopen with improved safeguards later this year, but until then the world is dependent on China for nearly all its rare-earth supplies. Since 2005, China has been placing increasingly stringent limits on exports, citing demand from its own burgeoning manufacturing industries.

That means politicians hoping to wean the west off its ruinous oil dependence are in for a nasty surprise: new and greener technologies are hardly a recipe for self-sufficiency. “There is no country that has sufficient resources of all these minerals to close off trade with the rest of the world,” says Jaffe.

So what can we do? Finding more readily available materials that perform the same technological tricks is unlikely, says Karl Gschneidner, a metallurgist at the DoE’s Ames Laboratory in Iowa. Europium has been used to generate red light in televisions for almost 50 years, he says, while neodymium magnets have been around for 25. “People have been looking ever since day one to replace these things, and nobody’s done it yet.”

Others take heart from the success story of rhenium. This is probably the rarest naturally occurring element, with a concentration of just 0.7 parts per billion in Earth’s crust. Ten years ago, it was the critical ingredient in heat-resistant superalloys for gas-turbine engines in aircraft and industrial power generation. In 2006, the principal manufacturer General Electric spotted a crunch was looming and instigated both a recycling scheme to reclaim the element from old turbines, and a research programme that developed rhenium-reduced and rhenium-free superalloys.

No longer throwing these materials away is one obvious way of propping up supplies. “Tellurium ought to be regarded as more precious than gold – it is; it is rarer,” says Jaffe. Yet in many cases less than 1 per cent of these technologically critical materials ends up being recycled, according to the United Nations Environment Programme’s latest report on metal recycling, published in May.

Even if we were to dramatically improve this record, some basic geological research to find new sources of these elements is crucial – and needed fast. Technological concerns and necessary environmental and social safeguards mean it can take 15 years from the initial discovery of an ore deposit in the developed world to its commercial exploitation, says Hitzman.

Rhenium again shows how quickly the outlook can change. In 2009, miners at a copper mine in Cloncurry, Queensland, Australia, discovered a huge, high-grade rhenium seam geologically unlike anything seen before. “It could saturate the world rhenium market for a number of years – and it was found by accident,” says Hitzman.

In the end, we should thank China for its decision to restrict exports of rare earths, says Jaffe, as it has brought the issue of technologically critical elements to our attention a decade earlier than would otherwise have happened. Even so, weaning ourselves off these exotic substances will be an immense challenge – as our brief survey of some of these unsung yet indispensable elements shows.
Bibliography

US Department of Energy, Critical Materials Strategy
American Physical Society and Materials Research Society, Energy Critical Elements
US Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries

by James Mitchell Crow

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.