Articles in Category: Minor Metals

Here’s What Happened

  • The Rare Earths MMI held steady for the month of May at a value of 19.
  • That makes two straight months at 19 for this sub-index, which has slowly crept up over the past quarter and now stands at its highest since August 2015 — back when the Dow had its worst month in 5 years.
  • Several Chinese rare earths price points fell over the month, with increases from neodymium oxide, europium oxide and dysprosium oxide doing their part to keep the ship steady overall.

What’s Going On in the Background?

  • When was the last time you heard the term “stalking horse bidder?” Turns out someone loved Molycorp and its Mountain Pass mine in California, the only source of rare earths production in this hemisphere, enough to buy it. As MetalMiner reported, ERP Strategic Minerals, LLC, part of the ERP Group of companies, has agreed to purchase the salient assets and surface property rights.
  • As leading REE analyst Jack Lifton commented on our story, it would essentially be cheaper to build a new plant in Tanzania rather than reboot existing operations at Mountain Pass. (Check out the story and the comment thread here.)
  • As for rare earths end-use markets, the clean energy and other high-tech applications that rely on REEs aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

What Metal Buyers Should Look Out For

  • According to this InvestorIntel article, buyers may need to keep a closer eye on dysprosium, used in high-tech industrial magnets, since Northern Minerals Ltd is well on its way to starting the largest dysprosium production operation outside China.

Key Price Movers and Shakers

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Here’s What Happened

  • The Renewables MMI spiked upwards for the month of May (but not a terribly huge spike in the scheme of things; see the bullet below), ending at a value of 71.
  • * Editor’s note: We’ve recalibrated the index to better take into account cobalt price fluctuations, hence the spike from 54 in April to 71 in May.
  • However, the Big Heavy of our sub-index that tracks metals and materials going into the renewable energy industry is the U.S. steel plate price. That price point took a 4.8% dive.

What’s Going On in the Background?

  • Several stories from the solar sector have been making waves lately. “Growth has slowed in the rooftop solar industry in the past year,” writes Jessica Goodheart in this piece, “but many see the evolution of battery storage technology and vehicle electrification as promising for the long-term health of the residential solar industry.”
  • And the policy picture? “Industry leaders have been cautiously optimistic that Republicans will leave be the federal Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC), a major policy driver of rooftop solar, in spite of Trump’s efforts to roll back the Clean Power Plan,” Goodheart notes.

What Metal Buyers Should Look Out For

  • Keep an eye out on steel plate’s raw material inputs — iron ore prices surged in April, as we reported in our May Monthly Buying Outlook, while coking coal prices swelled due to supply disruptions in Australia.

Key Price Movers and Shakers

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Few metals have as controversial a supply side as tin. Cobalt also springs to mind, largely due to the relative importance of the Democratic Republic of Congo as a supply source. But tin likewise seems to come from areas prone to military unrest, where illegal mining of the ore provides an opportunity to fund said unrest. Even in established producing countries like Indonesia, supply is hampered by extensive illegal mining, and the authorities have been engaged in a long running struggle to control illegal mining, principally to avoid environmental damage that occurs at unregulated mines.

Free Sample Report: Our Annual Metal Buying Outlook

Tin has benefitted from a broader commodity rebound this year. Prices are rising and LME inventory is falling as demand from the electronics industry, particularly in China, remains solid. However, one of the key supply-side variables is Myanmar, China’s new source of supply. As the graph below from Thomson Reuters shows, Myanmar is the only significant global source that has been on the rise in recent years. All others by and large have remained static or fallen.

Source: Thomson Reuters

Indonesia has the potential to export more concentrate. Its drive to control illegal mining and encourage greater domestic value-added refining has limited export volumes in recent years, encouraging China to increase imports from neighbouring Myanmar.

Reuters reports that almost all Chinese tin ore and concentrate imports now come from Myanmar, following the 2013 discovery of high grade reserves at Man Maw in northeast Myanmar. Annual production is now estimated at about 33,000 tons of tin concentrate, which Reuters reports is more than 10% of the metal’s global output. Read more

ERP Strategic Minerals, LLC, part of the ERP Group of companies, has been selected as the stalking horse bidder by the Chapter 11 trustee for Molycorp Minerals, LLC and related entities and entered into an asset purchase agreement with Molycorp’s bankruptcy trustee to purchase substantially all the assets and the surface property rights of the company’s debtors at the  Mountain Pass Rare Earths mine in California.

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The offering price is $1.2 million, a far cry from the $40 million offered and abruptly withdrawn earlier this year by Russian-born investor Vladimir Iorich and his Pala Invesments firm. However, ERP, as part of its offer, is also promising to shoulder up to $100 million worth of Mountain Pass’ debts and liabilities. Read more

India’s renewable energy sector just got bigger thanks to an investment from U.K.-owned CDC Group  of up to $100 million to support renewable energy projects.

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The announcement was made by the U.K.’s Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industry Strategy Greg Clark at the inaugural India-U.K. Energy for Growth Dialogue in New Delhi on April 6. He also met with India’s Minister for Power, New & Renewable Energy, Coal and Mines, Piyush Goyal, to talk about large-scale, private sector investments between the two countries in the area of energy.

The two ministers agreed that on the power and renewables front, the focus will be on the introduction of performance-improving smart technologies, energy efficiency and accelerating the deployment of renewable energy.

For some time now, CDC Group Plc, the U.K. government’s development finance institution, has made its known that it seeks to set up its own renewable energy platform focused on the eastern part of India, and even neighboring countries such as Bangladesh.

The finance institution is contemplating leveraging its experience in running Globeleq Africa, a company in which it acquired a majority stake in 2015, for green energy investments in Asia. Globeleq has a 1,200-megawatt gren power generation capacity spread across Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Kenya, South Africa and Tanzania.

As reported by MetalMiner, India aims to generate over half of its electricity through renewable and nuclear energy by 2027. The world’s largest democracy published a draft 10-year national electricity plan in December, which said it aimed to generate 275 gigawatts of renewable energy, and about 85 gw of other non-fossil fuel power such as nuclear energy, by the next decade. This would make up 57% of the country’s total electricity capacity by 2027, more than meeting its commitment to the Paris Agreement of generating 40% of its power through non-fossil fuel means by 2030.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

India has been taking massive forward strides in the renewable energy sector. Already, as per one estimate, it is set to overtake Japan as the world’s third-largest solar power market in 2017.  Taiwanese research firm EnergyTrend predicted that the global solar photovoltaic demand was expected to remain stable at 74 gw in 2017, with the Indian market experiencing sustained growth. The country was expected to add 14% to the global solar photovoltaic demand, the equivalent of the addition of 90 gw over the next five years.

This month, some of our metals reached new heights while others saw their rallies noticeably falter.

Aluminum and Raw Steels are still riding high, while complicated supply stories saw stainless and copper fall. Demand from manufacturers for almost all of the metals we track remains strong.

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17 Of the 18 manufacturing industries tracked by the Institute for Supply Management’s index of national factory activity reported growth and no industry reported a contraction last month. Buyers still might want to beware as metal markets are showing more pull-backs than we witnessed in March, despite the overall bullish behavior across the entire industrial metals complex.

China is now home to two-thirds of the world’s solar-production capacity.

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The efficiency with which China’s solar products convert sunlight into electricity is increasingly close to that of panels made by American, German and South Korean companies. Because China also buys half of the world’s new solar panels, the country now effectively controls the panel market.

Renewables MMI

A recent New York Times article details the meteoric rise of China’s solar industry and how its dominance in growing markets complicates the Trump administration’s attempts to cut down the U.S. trade deficit with China. China’s policy shifts and business decisions now have global impact on solar prices and production, particularly of crystalline polysilicon photovoltaic panels, everywhere else in the world.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

Now that China is cutting subsidies that it offers to panel manufacturers there, the ripples are being felt by installers in the U.S. and elsewhere. China’s solar-panel makers have recently cut their prices by more than a quarter, sending global prices plummeting. The NYT reports that Western companies have found themselves unable to compete. They have cut jobs from Germany to Michigan to Texas and the account includes the case of Russell Abney, a 49-year-old equipment engineer from Perrysburg, Ohio. The American panel manufacturer he worked for laid off Abney, among others, to remain competitive after China yanked its subsidies and manufacturers there lowered domestic prices to compensate.

If China’s dominance of solar panel manufacturing remains, able to move markets and cause layoffs worldwide depending on which subsidies are continued and which are scrapped, then the solar panel silicon market is likely to remain in the low-price rut we’ve documented in the Renewables MMI since 2012.

The Renewables MMI fell one point to 54 this month.

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U.S. Mining for rare earths is rapidly falling behind China, a trend that “limits our growth, our competitiveness and our national security,” Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R.-Alaska) said recently.

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According to the U.S. Geological Survey, imports in 2016 represented more than 50% of American consumption of 50 mineral commodities, a market valued at $32.3 billion annually. Of those 50, the U.S. was 100% import-dependent on 20, representing $1.3 billion. In 2015, the U.S. was half-dependent on 47 non-fuel mineral commodities and 100% reliant on 19 commodities.

Murkowski said at a committee hearing recently that this trend exposes the U.S. to potential supply shortages and price volatility, while also reducing international leverage and attractiveness for manufacturing.

Rare Earths MMI

“Instead of lessening our dependence, we are actually increasing our dependence,” she said. “We’re not making headway on this issue. … What are we doing wrong here?”

While Senator Murkowski’s comments are no doubt welcome by U.S. manufacturers who would love to source neodymium, scandium and other elements locally, a cursory look at our Rare Earths MMI shows that the supply situation is as much to blame for the lack of U.S. production as anything else, particularly among the heavy rare earths that most Chinese companies provide. Our Rare Earths MMI increased one point to a paltry 19 this month, its HIGHEST point since August of 2015. Ever since China banned export quotas of the key battery and magnet metals there has been plentiful supply and the low prices that come along with it.

Many smaller (some illegal) Chinese producers do not have the start-up costs that any Western rare earth producer does, simply because of lax regulation in that part of the world. That is changing, but the process is a slow one. Unfortunately for any prospective U.S. producers, the start-up costs situation is even worse when facing off against the larger Chinese rare earths producers. Some are state-sponsored and even the private ones enjoy subsidies at the state and national levels that no American producer could ever hope for.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

If Senator Murkowski and her committee want to promote the work of a U.S. rare earths miner (Molycorp, Inc. was the last active one and its Mountain Pass mine is up for auction after a bankruptcy last year), they should do what was promised during the election and roll back regulations that drive up startup costs for miners. It’s unlikely that a U.S. miner will ever face an even playing field with state-sponsored Chinese miners but right now, the tilt of it is so bad that many won’t even try. How bad is it? The company that holds the most promising identified deposit in the U.S. changed its name last year to downplay the fact that it plans to mine rare earths. Texas Rare Earths, which plans to mine a deposit in rural Round Top, changed its name to Texas Mineral Resources Corp.

The new name reflects a “significantly broader scope of Round Top projected output,” the company said in its release. What’s funny is one of the “broader” elements the release notes is scandium, which is generally considered a light rare earth element. It’s used the aerospace and automotive industries, particularly in aluminum alloys. Could it be that the rare earth “brand” is so damaged by abundant Chinese supply that U.S. companies are running away from it in their quest to draw investors?

Good luck with fixing the domestic supply situation, Senator Murkowski.

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NioCorp Developments Ltd. has successfully produced high-purity 99.9% commercial grade Scandium Trioxide from its Elk Creek, Ne., Superalloy Materials Project and the company has finalized plans for a proposed scandium purification circuit there.

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Niocorp also announced that it anticipates public release of the results of its Elk Creek Feasibility Study in the second calendar quarter of 2017. Following the release of the study, the company intends to intensify efforts to secure government permits and obtain project financing to prepare for the launch of construction operations in Nebraska.

NioCorp’s successful production of a high-purity commercial grade scandium, an element used to make superstrong and light alloys used in both the automotive and aerospace industries, was conducted at SGS Mineral Services lab in Lakefield, Ont., Canada. This is a major milestone in Niocorp’s plans to become one of the world’s largest producers of the high-value metal. A 99.9% purity level, otherwise known as 3Ns or “three nines” scandium, meets or exceeds the purity needed for the additive’s use in virtually all of its mainstream commercial applications, including ultra-high-performance aluminum-scandium alloys for the aerospace and automotive industries, in the solid oxide fuel cell industry, and in other defense and non-defense applications.

Two-Month Trial: Metal Buying Outlook

NioCorp said in a news release that the test showed its scandium product meets or exceeds the purity specifications of all potential customers with whom it has been in discussions.

OPEC Output Cut Threatened: Saudi Arabia Demands Iranian Cut

Saudi Arabia may demand that Iran, which is allowed a slight rise in output under the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ deal with member-states and non-members such as Russia, commit to an output reduction as a condition of continuing the cuts, people familiar with the kingdom’s thinking told S&P Global Platts.

Rainbow Rare Earths, which owns a rare earths mining project in Burundi, was listed on the London Stock Exchange at the end of January, according to the Financial Times. This has prompted speculation in mining and trading circles that China’s dominance may finally be challenged. We’re not holding our breaths, and China likely isn’t either, but it wouldn’t be the first time that the abundance of resources in Africa had been underestimated.

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The U.S. Geological Survey said in 2015 that China’s annual production of the key battery, magnet and conductor elements was slightly more than 100,000 metric tons. Australia came in second with 10,000 mt. Only three other countries produce more that 1,000 mt of rare earths a year. The US produced 4,100 mt but that’s sure to go down after the 2016 closure of the Mountain Pass mine, Russia produced 2,500 and Thailand checked in with a respectable 1,100 mt contribution to the production of cell phones, military hardware and wind turbines.

Rare Earths MMI

The FT points out that despite China’s dominant market position in refined exports, the same is not true of rare earth deposits. It’s estimated that China has no more than 30% of global deposits of the quite abundant, despite their name, elements. The problem that all new rare earths projects run into is the cost of bringing new deposits into production and the ability of one country with such a dominant position to flood the market and bring down prices, hitting the viability of new projects.

What’s Left of China’s Previous Challengers

Remember what happened to Molycorp, Inc. and how the Japanese threw a lifeline to Australia’s Lynas Corp.? Yet, the fact that Lynas is still trudging along and investment is still being made by a Japanese government and industrial culture that wants nothing to do with China’s rare earths industry may, paradoxically, be what sets Africa apart and its low-cost resource sector apart from others who have taken on the dragon.

Japan was de facto banned by the Chinese government from receiving any shipments of rare earths back in 2011 after the Japanese Navy detained a China fishing trawler captain. Since then, Japanese industry has not only aggressively replaced rare earths in its supply chains, depriving China of customers, but also supported Lynas and other non-Chinese manufacturers even to the point of keeping them in business. There is little doubt that both public and private Japanese money would automatically flow into African projects if significant deposits of rare earths are found.

Grudge Match

That China has lifted export quotas and prices have fallen to a low range means little to nothing to Japanese businessmen and women who remember having their supply chains cut off in 2011.

According to the FT, it is widely acknowledged that, outside North America and Australia, southern and eastern Africa offer the greatest potential for rare earth production, especially in South Africa, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, Kenya, Burundi, Zambia and Namibia.

Rainbow Rare Earths’ IPO is premised on its Gakara project in Burundi. The project is not yet producing and further exploration will be needed. The risks described in the IPO prospectus are a reminder of the difficulties of developing such projects, including pricing and environmental challenges and the need to produce ore at the required levels of concentration.

Rainbow raised $9.77 million (₤8 million) at its IPO.

The Rare Earths MMI broke eight straight months of flat performance and increased 1 point (5.9%) to 18 this month.

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