Articles in Category: Minor Metals

The Rare Earths Monthly Metals Index (MMI) stood pat this month for an MMI value of 17.

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Pentagon Reviews Critical Materials Dependence

Tariffs have been flying left and right this year, impacting a wide range of products, from steel and aluminum to everyday consumer goods.

Last month, the Trump administration imposed an additional $200 billion worth in tariffs on Chinese goods, marking a significant escalation of trade tensions between the two countries (the U.S. had already imposed a total of $50 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods).

But one sector that has avoided tariffs is perhaps not so difficult to guess: rare earths.

Given China’s overwhelming dominance of the market and the U.S.’s position as a relative non-factor in the industry (the U.S.’s only rare earths mine closed in 2015), the U.S. is thus dependent on China for many critical rare earths.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 78% of the total amount of U.S. rare earths imports from 2013-2016 came from China, followed by: Estonia (6%), France (4%), Japan (4%) and other sources (8%). The value of imports of rare earth compounds and metals reached $150 million in 2017, up from $118 million in 2016.

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Rare earth exporters in India have lodged protests after the government snatched their rights to send these precious elements abroad.

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Rare-earth metals are a group of 17 elements, which are found in geological deposits. Some of the most abundant metals in the world are neodymium, cerium, and lanthanum.

All rare earths are classified into two groups: light rare earths (LREs), and heavy rare earths (HREs).

Just 20 years earlier, the Government of India (GoI) allowed the private sector into beach sand mining. Now, it issued a notification, wherein the right to export these rare-earth metals have been taken away.

Instead, the GoI has introduced a canalization system.

The primary aim of canalization of exports through Indian Rare Earths (IRE), according to the Financial Express, is to curtail direct private sector export of beach sand minerals and derivatives like ilmenite, rutile and zircon.

Canalizing means putting quantitative restrictions on exports.

But the move has obviously not gone down well with rare earths miners. Miners have said these checks would curtail beach sand mining activities and deprive India of a developing sector.

According to a new research report by Global Market Insights, Inc, the rare earths market size will exceed U.S. $20 billion by 2024. It’s well known that the majority of the global rare earth production capacity is in China. However, China has not shown much inclination of sharing those resources with other nations.

Thus, the focus is on countries like India and Japan — specifically India, which has a sizable reserve.

Driving this sector is the demand for magnets in automobiles, and requirements in defense and energy generation. Electric cars, for example, rely on some of rare-earth metals.

Beach sand minerals and their derivatives find diverse applications in paints and other decorative materials, papers and plastics, and high-tech applications. At present, much of India’s share of domestic production, as well as exports, are done by private sector firms.

The GoI notification said export of beach sand minerals had been brought under the STE and shall be canalized through IRE. Beach sand minerals, permitted anywhere in the export policy, will now be regulated in terms of the new policy. One of the other sources of angst for private firms in the business is that they have already made huge capital investments by way of technology and production facilities.

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According to the Financial Express report, beach sand minerals mining activity commenced in India in 1908. In addition, until 1998, other minerals were restricted only to public sector companies (except for garnet), but just after that the GoI embarked on a path of liberalization that allowed participation by the private sector.

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The Rare Earths Monthly Metals Index (MMI) fell one point for an August reading of 18.

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Rare Earths and Trade Tensions

Much has been said about the rise of trade tensions around the world, particularly between the U.S. and China.

Those tensions began to manifest in the form of the Trump administration’s steel and aluminum tariffs this past spring, which, in addition to China, have affected U.S. allies.

But what about the impact of trade conflict on rare-earth metals, a market overwhelmingly dominated by China (at approximately 90%, according to most industry estimates)?

The U.S. is threatening a potential additional $200 billion in tariffs on Chinese imports (on top of the previously announced $50 billion, of which $34 billion has already gone into effect), while China has indicated it is prepared to respond in kind.

But, as The New York Times reported last month, China could strike back in other ways, too, including disruption of supply chains that depend on rare earth metals for an end product (e.g. smartphones).

As the report notes, some rare-earths metals appeared on the Section 301 product list drawn up by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer at President Trump’s direction.

Those metals and related compounds included:

  • scandium and yttrium, whether or not intermixed or interalloyed
  • mixtures of rare-earth oxides or of rare-earth chlorides
  • yttrium materials and compounds containing by wt. >19% but < 85% yttrium oxide equivalent
  • compounds, inorganic or organic, of rare-earth metals, of yttrium or of scandium, or of mixtures of these metals, nesoi
  • cerium compounds

With very little in the way of alternative supplies — that is, supplies of rare earths outside of China — the end result could simply be that U.S. companies will have no choice but to pay more for the metals, as an editorial in the South China Morning Post explains.

China’s dominance in the market and concerns over that fact are nothing new, nor is the situation likely to change anytime soon.

As the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) noted earlier this year, rare earths were not mined in the U.S. at all in 2017. According to USGS, the estimated value of rare-earth compounds and metals imported by the U.S. in 2017 was $150 million, up from $118 million in 2016. According to USGS, the distribution of rare-earths imports by end use was as follows: catalysts, 55%; ceramics and glass, 15%; metallurgical applications and alloys, 10%; polishing, 5%; and other, 15%.

Outside of China

Despite China’s dominance in the rare-earths sector, that hasn’t stopped business interests from probing for new sources around the world.

Within the U.S., Alaska is one such place considered potentially viable for rare-earth mining.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, expressed concerns during a July hearing on the issue of China’s dominance of the market and the impact of potential tariffs.

“My concern, among many concerns, is if China ultimately responds to tariffs by restricting our supply of rare earths, or any number of other minerals, the U.S. could be in serious trouble. We’ve heard testimony in the past about the dangers of the concentration of supply from a handful of countries that control the supply chain,” she said, as quoted by the Anchorage Daily News. “I’m hopeful that we aren’t about to experience those dangers firsthand and will continue to urge action to reduce this significant vulnerability.”

As the report notes, at the current stage, much work remains to be done before assessing the viability of rare-earth mining in the state, including the Bokan Mountain prospect, considered to be the most promising of Alaskan sites, per the report. But availability and viability are two different things; particularly in light of the specter of potential tariffs, it is certainly worth keeping an eye on developments in rare-earth mining efforts in The Last Frontier.

Actual Metal Prices and Trends

It was a down month for many of the metals in the Rare Earths MMI basket.

The price of yttrium fell 2.8% month over month, down to $33.03/kg. Terbium oxide dropped 2.8% to $3,009.10/kg.

Neodymium oxide dropped 4.3% to $46,971.30/mt.

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Europium oxide plunged 21.5% to $46.24/kg, while dysprosium oxide fell 3.4% to $168.80/kg.

The U.S. Department of Commerce. qingwa/Adobe Stock

Before we head into the weekend, let’s take a look back at the week that was and some of the metals storylines here on MetalMiner®:

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Cobalt is a product we don’t often talk about, partly because of its relative scarcity but also because of the specificity of its industrial application.

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With that said, the industries it does draw interest from are high-profile ones, including the growing electric vehicle (EV) sector.

Given cobalt’s relative scarcity and the sometimes volatile state of its supply chains, even small shifts in supply can have massive impacts. According to a report by S&P Global Market Intelligence, global mined cobalt production in 2017 fell to 115,071 tons from 116,272 tons in 2016. Much of the drop came as a result of halted operations at the Lububashi Slag Hill operation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

A majority of the world’s cobalt is mined in the DRC (at 60.5% in 2017), meaning the cobalt price is subject, in many cases, to the political instability of the country, often leading to production stoppages.

According to the the Herfindahl-Hirschmann Index (HHI), which helps to assess the level of competition between companies in an industry, the cobalt sector is, unsurprisingly, very concentrated.

According to the S&P report, a reading greater than 0.25 indicates a concentrated market. As of 2009, the cobalt HHI stood at approximately 0.25 and, in the ensuing years, has risen to approximately 0.38 in 2017.

Per the report, that market concentration is likely to increase in the coming years, as the S&P report claims there is “very little likelihood that the DRC will cease to be the most important source of cobalt globally.”

Outside of the DRC, the S&P report indicates cobalt production has increased at Vale’s Voisey’s Bay operation in Canada. As we recently noted, Vale inked a deal with two Canadian companies worth a total of $690 million. That, combined with the approval of an underground mine at Voisey’s Bay, will provide a “significant source” of cobalt from outside of the DRC, with the mine life possibly extending into the 2030s, the S&P report states.

As for political considerations, elections in the DRC are scheduled for the end of 2018. The country has been entrenched in a state of political limbo after President Joseph Kabila refused to step down at the end of 2016 (the end of his mandate). Kabila assumed power in 2001 shortly after the assassination of his father, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, and was elected in 2006 and re-elected in 2011.

According to the S&P analysis, post-2016 unrest “has not had a significant effect on the historically restive Lualaba and Haut-Katanga provinces hosting the Roan copper-cobalt belt,” but that there has been “lingering concern that the violence and disturbance could spread throughout the country.”

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Large multinational miners have still, nonetheless, looked to cash in on the country’s cobalt reserves, despite the challenges to the business environment posed by political instability. In addition, miners have attempted to grapple with a revamped mining code, signed into law by President Kabila in April. The new code calls for higher royalties due to the government from minerals sales. With respect to cobalt, the revamped code called for a royalty increase to 10% (up from 2%).

The Rare Earths Monthly Metals Index (MMI) stood pat this month, holding for a reading of 19. 

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The Search for Rare Earths

As we noted in an MMI post earlier this year, the discovery of a large deposit of undersea rare earths approximately just over 1,000 miles off the shores of Japan generated much excitement in the world of rare earths. Rare earths are coveted for their application in a wide range of modern technology, ranging from cellphones to laptops.

China overwhelmingly dominates the rare earths market, so the discovery of a new major source of rare earths elsewhere could pose a challenge to China’s dominance — that is, if the discovered deposit were accessible.

The undersea cache of rare earths is not accessible via current extraction technology. As a result, companies like Toyota are teaming up with scientists in order to develop the extraction technology needed to get at those valuable materials deep under the sea, according to a report by the Nikkei Asian Review. Per the report, the amount of terbium in Japanese waters is equivalent to about 11,000 years’ worth of domestic consumption (significant amounts of yttrium and dysprosium were also detected).

According to the report, the University of Tokyo’s Rare-Earth Rich Mud Development Promoting Consortium is leading a project that aims to make the discovery a commercial reality. The group is leveraging the abilities of big companies like Toyota, Shin-Etsu Chemical and JGC, and Modec, according to the report.

Ucore, Trump Administration Officials Talk U.S. Dependence on Chinese Rare Earths

Speaking of China’s dominance in the rare earths sphere, officials from Ucore Rare Metals, a Canadian rare earths firm, met with Trump administration officials in late June to discuss the U.S.’s dependence on China for the increasingly coveted metals.

According to a Ucore release, the company officials shared details on the company’s plans for a “domestic Strategic Metals Complex (SMC) in Southeast Alaska,” in addition to “the viability of development of domestic REE supplies in the Appalachian Coal District.”

“Near complete dependence on potentially unreliable foreign sources of rare earth materials remains a major national security vulnerability and one the Trump Administration is publicly committed to ending,” Ucore President and CEO Jim McKenzie said. “This vulnerability is also recognized in the U.S. Congress by the House of Representatives in its version of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). As an example, Section 873 of the House NDAA prohibits the acquisition of sensitive materials, such as samarium-cobalt and neodymium-iron-boron magnets from non-allied foreign nations. If enacted into law, this requirement for a secure supply of rare earth magnets creates synergy with the forthcoming SMC construction by increasing demand for non-Chinese rare earth products.”

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Actual Metal Prices and Trends

Yttrium dropped 3.3% to $33.97/kilogram. Terbium also fell 3.3%, dropping to $460.53/kilogram.

Neodymium oxide dropped 2.5% to $49,071.90/metric ton.

Europium oxide fell 3.3% to $58.89/kilogram. Dysprosium oxide fell 3.1% to $174.78/kilogram.

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The Renewables MMI (Monthly Metals Index), after a significant surge last month, sat at 100 for the second consecutive month.

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Within this basket of metals, the Japanese steel plate price rose, as did the price of Chinese and American steel plate. U.S. steel plate, in fact, rose 5.5% month over month.

U.S. grain-oriented electrical steel (GOES) coil also jumped in price.

As for the trio of rare and minor metals in this MMI, cobalt cathodes fell 1.1%, while silicon dropped slightly and neodymium made a small gain.

Cobalt Costs

According to a report by the Financial Times, changes to the mining code in the Democratic Republic of Congo will lead to higher costs for consumers of the metal.

According to the report, President Joseph Kabila on Wednesday said he would sign a new order after meeting with representatives from some of the big miners with business in the country, including Glencore, Molybdenum and Ivanhoe Mines. 

Cobalt is used in batteries for electric vehicles (EVs), among other things, making it an especially prized material as EVs gain popularity. As such, with a majority of the world’s cobalt being mined in the DRC, political machinations in the country have a significant impact on the metal’s price.

According to the Financial Times, the code could see royalties on cobalt — plus other metals, like copper and gold — rise from 2% to 10%.

Senators Lobby for Electrical Steel Protection in 232

The Journal-News reported on a trio of U.S. senators who lobbied Trump to prioritize electrical steel in the Section 232 trade remedy process.

The only remaining maker of electrical steel in the country, AK Steel, was unlikely to benefit from the Section 232 trade remedy proposal, according to Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH).

“We write you today to share our concerns that your proposed section 232 remedy is incomplete when it comes to electrical steel,” Portman and two other senators said in their letter to Trump, according to the Journal-News. “We write on behalf of a constituent company, AK Steel, which is the last domestic producer of grain-oriented electrical steel (GOES). Since the remedy, as currently constructed, does not include electrical cores and core parts, the remedy will not be effective for the domestic electrical steel market.”

In the senators’ letter, they requested the president add a trio of HTS codes to the duty order.

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Actual Metal Prices and Trends

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The Rare Earths MMI (Monthly Metals Index) held steady, notching a reading of 20 for our March MMI.

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Within the basket of metals, Chinese yttrium dropped slightly, while terbium metal picked up in price.

Europium oxide also dropped slightly, while dysprosium oxide picked up an extra dollar per kilogram.

New Toyota Magnet Not Dependent on Some Rare-Earth Minerals

According to a report by Ars Technica, a new magnet developed by automaker Toyota will not be dependent on some key rare-earth minerals.

Toyota announced it had invented a magnet — for application in electric vehicles — that uses much less of the rare-earth mineral neodymium. According to Toyota, it had developed “the world’s first neodymium-reduced, heat-resistant magnet.”

Of course, cost is a major restraining factor when it comes to electric vehicle (EV) growth. Materials needed for EV batteries, like neodymium, are costly, and many battery makers have sought to reconfigure the percentages of metals used in their batteries to phase out more cost-prohibitive materials (like cobalt, for example).

In addition to reducing the use of neodymium, the new magnet also completely phases out two other rare earth minerals.

“The newly developed magnet uses no terbium (Tb) or dysprosium (Dy), which are rare earths that are also categorized as critical materials necessary for highly heat-resistant neodymium magnets,” according to the Toyota statement. “A portion of the neodymium has been replaced with lanthanum (La) and cerium (Ce), which are low-cost rare earths, reducing the amount of neodymium used in the magnet.”

According to the announcement, the new magnet reduces the amount of neodymium used by as much as 50%.

Europium Market to Hit $308.9M by 2025

The global europium market is set to hit a value of $308.9 million by 2025, according to a recent report by Reportbuyer.

According to the report, consumer electronics, automotive, semiconductors, and energy and mining  are the sectors leading the charge in the growth of europium.

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Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced that it is seeking public comment on a recently released draft list of minerals “considered critical to the economic and national security of the United States.”

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An executive order from President Trump in December directed the secretary of the interior (in coordination with other agencies) to publish a list of critical minerals in the Federal Register. As of Feb. 27, there were 102 public comments listed on the Federal Register.

“The work of the USGS (United States Geological Survey) is at the heart of our nation’s mission to reduce our vulnerability to disruptions in the supply of critical minerals,” said Dr. Tim Petty, assistant secretary of the interior for water and science, in an Interior Department release. “Any shortage of these resources constitutes a strategic vulnerability for the security and prosperity of the United States.”

The published list covers minerals used in a broad range of practical applications, from catalytic agents to batteries.

According to the Executive Order signed Dec. 20 by Trump, a critical mineral is defined according to a trio of components:

  • A non-fuel mineral or mineral material essential to the economic and national security of the U.S.
  • The mineral has a supply chain vulnerable to disruption
  • The mineral serves an essential function in the manufacturing of a product, “the absence of which would have significant consequences” for the economy and national security

According to the order, within 180 days of publication of the list of minerals, the secretary of commerce — in coordination with the secretaries of defense, the interior, agriculture and energy — will submit a report to the president that will outline, among other things, a strategy to reduce the U.S.’s reliance on critical minerals and an assessment of “progress toward developing critical minerals recycling and reprocessing technologies.”

The full list of critical minerals from the Department of the Interior, including common applications, is as follows:

  • Aluminum (bauxite), used in almost all sectors of the economy
  • Antimony, used in batteries and flame retardants
  • Arsenic, used in lumber preservatives, pesticides, and semi-conductors
  • Barite, used in cement and petroleum industries
  • Beryllium, used as an alloying agent in aerospace and defense industries
  • Bismuth, used in medical and atomic research
  • Cesium, used in research and development
  • Chromium, used primarily in stainless steel and other alloys
  • Cobalt, used in rechargeable batteries and superalloys
  • Fluorspar, used in the manufacture of aluminum, gasoline, and uranium fuel
  • Gallium, used for integrated circuits and optical devices like LEDs
  • Germanium, used for fiber optics and night vision applications
  • Graphite (natural), used for lubricants, batteries, and fuel cells
  • Hafnium, used for nuclear control rods, alloys, and high-temperature ceramics
  • Helium, used for MRIs, lifting agent, and research
  • Indium, mostly used in LCD screens
  • Lithium, used primarily for batteries
  • Magnesium, used in furnace linings for manufacturing steel and ceramics
  • Manganese, used in steelmaking
  • Niobium, used mostly in steel alloys
  • Platinum group metals, used for catalytic agents
  • Potash, primarily used as a fertilizer
  • Rare earth elements group, primarily used in batteries and electronics
  • Rhenium, used for lead-free gasoline and superalloys
  • Rubidium, used for research and development in electronics
  • Scandium, used for alloys and fuel cells
  • Strontium, used for pyrotechnics and ceramic magnets
  • Tantalum, used in electronic components, mostly capacitors
  • Tellurium, used in steelmaking and solar cells
  • Tin, used as protective coatings and alloys for steel
  • Titanium, overwhelmingly used as a white pigment or metal alloys
  • Tungsten, primarily used to make wear-resistant metals
  • Uranium, mostly used for nuclear fuel
  • Vanadium, primarily used for titanium alloys
  • Zirconium, used in the high-temperature ceramics industries

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Before we head into the weekend, let’s take a look back at the week that was and some of the stories here on MetalMiner:

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  • What’s up with aluminum? After a strong 2017 the metal hasn’t seen as much upward movement as some other base metals. Our Stuart Burns looked into why that might be.
  • Meanwhile, the British steel industry could be due for a jolt of investment, leading to some signs of a recovery, Burns writes.
  • There’s a new name entering the electric vehicles fray, Burns writes, and it might not be a brand you’d associate with the automotive sector.
  • In light of the markets’ recent volatility, Irene Martinez Canorea surveyed the relationship between the VIX — the ticker symbol for the CBOE’s Volatility Index — and commodities.
  • In case you missed it, last Friday the Department of Commerce made public it Section 232 reports and recommendations on steel and aluminum (the reports had already been sent on to the president last month). Lisa Reisman and Irene Martinez Canorea broke down the reports and their implications for aluminum, specifically. Check out the three-part series at the following links: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.
  • Lithium is a material that’s both rare and increasingly coveted for applications like electric vehicle batteries. So, is the world doomed to run out of it, or will demand encourage investment in finding new supply? Burns delved into the matter earlier this week.
  • The U.S. International Trade Commission voted last week that imports of carbon and alloy wire rod from South Africa and Ukraine are injurious to the domestic industry.
  • We touched on Section 232 aluminum above — what about steel? Reisman added her thoughts on the steel investigation, ranging from capacity utilization rates to trade remedies to talks of a looming trade war.

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