Bromby on a new view on metals of the future
Gold and platinum “rare metals”? Perhaps not the best choice of terms for a book aimed at introducing readers to the less readily available metals. But American author Keith Veronese is rather locked into the terminology, courtesy of the title he chooses for his new book, Rare – The High-Stakes Race to Satisfy Our Need for the Scarcest Metals on Earth (published by Prometheus Books, New York).
The terminology also bumps up against accepted usage, even though you can see what Veronese is trying to do. There are rare earths, of course, and most writers operating in this sector of the metals market tend to use “critical” or “minor” to describe the Non-REE elements considered key metals of the future. There is nothing rare about gold; there are many gold mines around the world producing many thousands of ounces a day. Yes, the world produced only about 3,000 tonnes a year but most of the gold ever mined is still in existence and much of it is available.
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But let’s put aside concerns about the use of the term “rare” and look at some of the points made by Veronese.
The book is a useful primer on what mining is all about: for example, he explains the problems faced in extracting copper from the Earth’s crust. And newcomers to this subject would be surprised by his describing that, in the Earth’s crust, the amounts of europium, neodymium, ytterbium, holmium and lanthanum is roughly the same as the resources of copper, zinc, nickel or cobalt. But Veronese gets bogged down by his attempt to make a simple explanation, weaving a complex story of why the rare earths are not quite the same proposition as the base metals. REE is as much a chemical industry as a mining one; copper miners don’t have to get involved in downstream processes or tailor their output the specific requirements – that might have explained the issue somewhat better than the convoluted construction in this book.
Chapter 3 has a useful outline as to why the U.S. basically abdicated from its role as the largest REE power. He shows how, before World War II, the U.S. relied on Brazil and India to supply REE and then later encouraged mining at home. But by the 1990s it just seemed easier (and cheaper) just to buy REE from all the new mines being developed in China. Well, it was a little more complicated than that: as he explains in a later chapter, the U.S. never had useful amount of eight of the REE (including terbium, ytterbium or erbium).
How that dependence on China has rebounded on the West. Veronese claims that by next year China itself will consume 130,000 tonne of REE a year, leaving scant supplies for the rest of the world. “We may see a day quite soon when the whole of China’s rare earth production is used within its borders, leaving the rest of the world scrambling to meet the needs of its citizens<” he adds. Quite possible, but hardly a revelation, especially as Veronese seems (from his source notes) not to have been aware of Investor Intel and the fact that has spent several year explaining the fine details of that issue, and of everything else concerned with critical metals.
Veronese, in a chapter called “The New Precious Metals”, sees these as including lanthanum due to the growing needs of makers of hybrid and electric cars who want to push the limits of battery storage capacity. Graphene gets just under two pages (although he realizes it is not a metal). Thorium is included and it must be said that any publicity for this as a nuclear fuel (over uranium) should be welcomed, and tere is a useful explanation of how a modern molten salt reactor works. Neodymium and niobium are chosen, too, because of their importance to the magnet business, Veronese making the point that the famous CERN Large Hedron Collider in Geneva uses magnets made from alloys of niobium-titanium metals. Hafnium is his other pick, thanks to its defence possibilities an an explosion enhancer.
Overall, this book does advance discussion as the subjects range from Afghanistan’s potential for metals and the future uses of platinum. InvestorIntel readers will probably quibble with many points – just as they do in InvestorIntel, and that is the point.
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