The great Scandium wait
As far as I can see, that’s a question to which there is as yet no definitive answer. Moreover, the situation is a microcosm of the problem facing the rare earths sector as a whole: frustration from potential end-users at the fact that many non-China projects are running late. Even with what seemed the most likely to get going (albeit on a very small scale) silence has prevailed for eight months; in March, Sumitomo announced it was to begin a pilot plant at its laterite nickel mine in the Philippines and would produce 10kg a month from some time in 2014, which is not going to make all that much difference given that the generally accepted potential demand globally is about 100 tonnes a year.
In fact, with scandium the rest of the world has a clear run as this is one rare earth element that China does not dominate (although, it presumably could lift output as the REE is found as a by-product in iron, tin and tungsten deposits in Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Jiangxi and Zhejiang provinces, according to the U.S. Geological Survey).
These thoughts about the scandium conundrum were provoked by two triggers. One was booking a ticket for a flight where the aircraft will be the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. One of the two major markets for scandium is the aerospace industry, where aircraft makers are looking to new materials for lighter-stronger aeroplanes (as are the makers of trains and, importantly, ships to reduce fuel costs).
The other was coming across a report in the 15 April 1997 edition of The Christian Science Monitor headed “Cold-War Aluminium Finds Its Way Into Little League Bats”. This was aluminium containing small amounts of scandium, an alloy perfected by the Soviet air force in the 1980s which allowed them make their MiG-29 combat aircraft lighter and stronger, something that was seen at the time as a huge Cold War advantage.
More recently, there have been developments which could see scandium used in solid oxide fuel cells; the addition of scandium allows lower operating temperatures and extends the operating life of the fuel cell.
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About 80kg of scandium is used each year in halide lighting. That doesn’t sound much, until you add that total world production of scandium is probably no more — maybe less — than 10 tonnes a year. But future environmentally-friendly light bulbs offer a big potential market for scandium.
Getting back to the baseball bat story, it was obvious from that report 16 years ago that there were market opportunities for scandium. But since then the supply story has not changed: the metal is still produced as a by-product in China, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine.
In fact, back in 1997 it looked as if Ukraine was going to be part of the answer to the scandium shortage. Much scandium came from its Zhovti Vody uranium and iron ore mine near Kiev, and the country was by then independent after the break-up of the Soviet Union. A Bermuda-based company, Ashurst Technology, was working with the Ukrainian scientists to come up with new customers; among those proposed were McDonnell Douglas and Israel Aircraft Industries.
Ashurst’s first product, though, was the new scandium-laced aluminium baseball bat. The technology was licensed to bat manufacturer Easton Sports in Van Nuys, California. (The bats could be used only in Little League: in 1997, they could not be used in the major leagues; and they were expensive at $240.) Ashurst, according to the Monitor report, was proposing to use scandium in aluminium arrows, automobiles, hockey sticks and ski poles. And golf clubs.
Then in 1998 a company called Uranium Australia (no longer in existence) announced it had discovered a potentially huge scandium resource at Syerston, New South Wales. A Sydney newspaper reported that one estimate said Syerston contained enough scandium to supply the entire world for years.
Well, they’re still working on at least four scandium projects in Australia, most contained in nickel and cobalt deposits. Madagascar has potential, too.
But here we are still waiting for someone — anyone — to get something going.
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