Manganese Comes of Age

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There was a time when if the price of a metal doubled in a year it would be the stuff of headlines. Not only trade journals, but newspapers and even TV channels would post features on the dramatic price rise and the ensuing calamity that was likely to follow ” whether it be a crash in the price or consumers being forced out of business. Nowadays we appear hardened to trebling or even quadrupling of prices in a single year such is the bull market that has prevailed this decade. So as the price of manganese has doubled in the last 12 months maybe we can be forgiven for not having taken too much notice.

That would be a mistake, however, because manganese is not some minor alloying element that can be easily substituted, it is widely used as both an alloying element and as a crucial additive in steel production. Whether it is as manganese ore, as ferro- manganese or as silico-manganese, the US imports virtually all of its manganese. It is considered a strategic metal by the US government. 80% of the world’s known manganese reserves are in just two countries, South Africa and the Ukraine. Currently 60% of the world’s production comes from just three, South Africa, China and the Ukraine ” is this sounding vulnerable to a possible disruption? It certainly is.

Manganese has many key industrial uses; some 90% of world consumption goes into steel production, mostly in steel refining but increasingly as a nickel alloying substitute in stainless steels and in high manganese alloy steels. High strength structural aluminum 5000 series alloys also use manganese. Rising metals costs this year have already forced Alcan to raise prices at its Ravenswood facility for these grades of flat rolled aluminum products.

No new mines are on the near term horizon even though the uses to which the metal is now being put reads like a list of all the growth areas ” low nickel stainless steel, high strength structural manganese steels, aluminum alloys, not just dry cell and alkaline batteries but also lithium-ion batteries for the new breed of hybrid cars. Existing miners are scrambling to raise output but it’s debatable if they are going to be able to keep pace with demand without new mines.

So if you use manganese steels, 3000/5000 series aluminum alloys or have migrated to stainless steels in which nickel has been replaced by manganese keep a close eye on the manganese market. 2008/9 could be the metal’s year and further prices rises are to be expected with consequences for all those alloys in which it is such a key component.

–Stuart Burns

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