We are all well aware of China’s stranglehold on the rare earth metals market, that they produce some 98 percent of global supply and how prices have quadrupled since Beijing began closing illegal mines and restricting exports in the name of environmental protection. Part and parcel of the furor around the US’ “at-risk position regarding rare earth metals, firms like Lynas and Molycorp have found a much more receptive investor environment for their fund raising, enabling Molycorp to fast-track mine and processing development not to mention use some of those dollars raised to diversify into investments overseas.
Well, guess what? The US isn’t only at risk on rare earths. An interview in Mineweb with Peter Zhang, a Vancouver-based consultant with extensive experience in China and the US, details a potentially even greater risk for US steel and metals companies due to supply constraints of manganese.
The article leads with the rather damning advice that the US Department of Defense named manganese a strategic metal 30 years ago, but that the country is devoid of any electrolytic manganese production, importing it all from — you guessed it — China, with lesser amounts from South Africa. According to the International Manganese Institute, approximately 1.2 million tons of electrolytic manganese metal was produced in 2009, with China accounting for over 95 percent of production.
It is important to be clear we are talking about electrolytic manganese, not ferro-manganese or silico-manganese, which are produced in the US from manganese ores imported from Gabon, but mostly supplied as ferro-alloys imported from South Africa, China and elsewhere. Electrolytic manganese is used as an alloying element in aluminum and copper alloys, as a colorant in bricks, and combined with lithium or nickel in batteries. Indeed, its use in lithium-ion manganese batteries is its fastest and potentially most challenging application — if the US cannot access competitively priced and reliable supplies of manganese, a host of high-tech new applications will be lost to foreign competitors.
Although manganese has been used for years in conventional batteries, its use in the newest generation of batteries for electric vehicles is likely to grab the most attention. According to Resource Investor, one of the first new widespread uses for electrolytic manganese is in the cathodes of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles (EV). This technology is already in use by a number of leading automotive manufacturers.
The Argonne National Laboratory in conjunction with Envia Systems has developed a “high capacity manganese rich cathode (HCMRC) battery, and they claim it holds twice the charge of other lithium-ion type batteries currently in use, can be recharged in a few minutes and is approximately half the weight of other EV storage batteries as well as having a lower production cost than other comparable lithium-ion type batteries currently under development. Lithium manganese dioxide batteries (Li-Mn2-O4) (LMD) contain 4% lithium, 61% manganese and 35% oxygen by atomic weight.
To be continued in Part Two tomorrow morning.