Continued from Part One.
Although volumes are still comparatively low for EVs now (the Mitsubishi i MiEV and Nissan Leaf being the highest-selling models only manage about 15,000 vehicles per year as of September this year), sales are rising and a major improvement in battery performance could be a stimulant for yet faster uptake. If manganese prices rose, as rare earth prices rose following Chinese export restrictions, the benefit of lower LMD battery prices could be stopped dead in its tracks.
Batteries are not the sole use of manganese by any means. The alloying of manganese with aluminum is probably the largest single application for the metal and the cornerstone of our 100 billion can-per-year beverage market, not to mention the construction and road transport industries. But in terms of criticality to the US, manganese’s role in the hardening of steels is probably its most strategically crucial application. Without manganese, many steel grades would not exhibit the strength characteristics that underpin their use in so many applications; and 200-series stainless steel, where the inclusion of manganese in place of nickel contributes towards yield strengths up to 40 percent more than nickel-bearing 300 series while retaining acceptable levels of corrosion resistance, would not be possible.
Fortunately, the US has its Molycorp of the manganese world in the form of American Manganese (AM). Like Molycorp in the latter half of the last decade, American Manganese today is seeking funds to develop an abandoned domestic US resource. Like Molycorp, it claims (with some justification) to have modern technology that will allow economic (and environmentally responsible) extraction of 99.9% pure manganese metal from a low (3.5-4.0%) grade ore at Artillery Peak in Arizona. Reserves, mined in the 1940s but since abandoned, are said to exceed 15 billion pounds of manganese indicated and a further 3.5 billion inferred, according to the latest results last month.
AM is aiming to come on-stream by 2014 — that may be ambitious, but we hope they are not too far behind schedule with that objective. With so much of the world’s electrolytic manganese coming from so limited a supply base, the sooner the US has its own mine and refining operation, the better.