Are Minor Metals Heading for a Supply Shortage?

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Non-ferrous Metals

We don’t often write about the minor metals or rare metals and never in the same article. To be fair if the minor metals are minor then the rare earths are more minor still. Depending on who you talk to the two groups can overlap. The Minor Metals Trade Association (MMTA) defines minor metals rather loosely as any metal which is not traded on the London Metal Exchange. Their website claims some 49 metals as being under their sphere of interest and certainly many of these would also fall under the banner of rare earths. Jack Lifton, an author and consultant is quoted in a Gold Report interview as defining rare earths as those metals between atomic # 57 through 71 ” the lanthanide elements, with scandium and yttrium ” no they don’t exactly roll of the tongue do they – as well.

If we consider the wider grouping of minor metals as defined by the MMTA we could still be forgiven for thinking they are of minor importance, surely the world needs copper more than say rhenium? We normally produce (recessions not withstanding) some 16 million tons of copper per year but just 45 tons of rhenium, but we couldn’t make jet engines or gas turbines without rhenium so may be we do need it if we want air travel, large ships, fast trains and so on. Rhenium is typical of many other minor metals in that it is not mined as a free ore, it is produced as a by-product from the production of more base metals. In this case it is recovered from the flue dust captured in Molybdenum roasters. Molybdenum in turn is rarely produced as a primary metal and nearly always as a by-product of nickel or copper-nickel mining. Copper is also the source of 95% of the world’s tellurium and selenium. Bauxite from which aluminum is produced is the only commercial source for gallium needed for transistors. In addition, zinc ores are the primary source of germanium, cadmium and indium. So as mine and smelting capacity are cut back for these primary metals as the global market demand from automobiles, housing and so on contracts, so does the availability of these minor metals.

So what you may say, if we are using less of everything what does that matter. Well unfortunately we don’t uniformly use less of everything, some metals we use much less of and some we use only slightly less of. For example copper and aluminum use has collapsed because the demand for housing, automobiles and consumer goods has fallen dramatically. There are massive stocks of finished aluminum sitting in warehouses around the world depressing the incentive to mine more bauxite and hence release minor metals. Meanwhile production of jet engines, nuclear reactors, medical implants, electronics (and the list goes on..) could not happen without small traces of minor metals. The demands (and incentives) to produce will be different from one industry to another in a recession. Sales of hybrid cars are still holding up better than the wider car market. Wind turbines are being built worldwide at a rapid rate on the back of widespread government subsidies. So demand for minor metals needed for example in advanced nickel hydride batteries for hybrid cars and highly efficient magnets for turbines will continue, but supply will not. Nor, with the minor metal yield per ton of base metal being in the pounds or ounces, will a higher minor metal price spur production of more base metals.

The number of businesses directly using minor metals out there are few and far between. The number of businesses out there using minor metals as a critical component in the alloys they consume are much greater than most of us realize. As the recession perseveres and inventories decrease expect shortages to begin to impact business sectors who previously thought they were doing rather well in spite of the downturn.

–Stuart Burns

Comments (3)

  1. Stuart, an excellent summary of the complex world of minor metals. These metals are produced in relatively small quantities, true, but their importance to modern technology is hard to understate.
    To image a world without these critical elements you only have to look back 40 years and see the improvements that have been made: jet engines, rechargeable batteries , and flat screen monitors are just three technologies that are more efficient, more powerful and cheaper due to the addition of minor metals.
    In Japan these elements are refered to as “indutries’ vitamins” which is a good indication of their importance.

    The International Minor Metals Conference 2009 will be in Istanbul from April 26 – 28. For information see http://www.mmta.co.uk.

  2. Nowadays, there is severe supply shortage for various minor metal industries. Requires immediate and effective solution.

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