Rare earths still most wanted; Japan clearing decks for seabed REE hunt
Rare earth companies might be feeling the times at present are against them, but these elements are still (along with gallium) the highest ranking critical materials. Don’t take our word for that: that’s the global consensus of those who should know.
Thanks to the work of Geoscience Australia, the federal government agency, it has studied a range of reports on critical materials — they include the British Geological Survey (BGS), the European Commission (EC), the United Nations Environmetal Program’s 2009 report, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Korean Institute of Industrial Technology and the state-owned Japan Oil, Gas and Metals Corp (JOGMEC).
The report, Critical Commodities for a high-tech world: Australia’s potential to supply global demand, which has just been released by federal Resources minister Gary Gray, is primarily aimed at investigating Australia’s geological potential for these materials. But its summary of all the other reports is a fascinating distillation of where we stand.
Rare earths were listed as the No. 1 priority by the BGS, EC in 2011, and (for the heavies) the U.S. DoE. (Interestingly the Japanese rated manganese and the South Koreans gallium as their highest priorities; surprisingly JOGMEC put rare earths at only No. 11 and the South Koreans at No. 7)
But the Australians have done their own rankings based on allocating a score across all the reports.
Geoscience Australia then put the rankings of all reports together in terms of what were seen as the most critical metal: for every top tier ranking by one of the abovementioned agencies, the material was allocated five points; for those materials put in the mid-tier, the metal was allocated three points for each such placing; and when it appears in the lower ranks, then there was one point. Take manganese: in the JOGMEC ranking it was No. 1 (hence 5 points) but in the DoE it was ranked low (so one point) while the South Koreans ranked it in the middle zone (three points. But it did not rate in some, hence it ended up with just 12 points.
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Using this methodology, as you can see, rare earths and gallium came out the most critical overall. It’s not that scientific, but more like a consensus figure.
Rare earths (29)
Platinum group (22)
Footnote: The report offers one illustration of the importance of some of the minor metals. Here we have often talked about how a certain material provides addition strength or durability, but mostly in general terms. But look at rhenium and jet engine turbines. Without rhenium, the turbine blades can withstand temperatures of between 2,000F and 2,200F; but with rhenium, that figure hits a temperature of 3,000F. It doubles the power and thrust of the turbine, increases fuel efficiency by between 40% and 60%, reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 64%, sulphur dioxide emissions by 99.9% and eliminates particulates. That’s using about 25kg of rhenium in the turbine’s alloy.
Of the rare earths, Geoscience Australia singles out neodymium. In 2006, its demand in what the report calls “emerging technologies” (as opposed to established uses) was about 4,000 tonnes. By 2030 they estimate emerging technologies might require as much as 27,900 tonnes a year.
Setting aside rare earths and looking at other critical metals, we can see how emerging technologies will shape demand. (And this is really guesswork, but given that the iPhone came on the market in 2007 and the iPad in 2010, we can assume that some fairly dramatic developments will occur by 2030, the year chosen by Geoscience Australia for its projections).
Take gallium (used in high temperature thermometers, for doping semi-conductors and converting electricity into coherent light), its 2006 output was 152 tonnes and just 28 tonnes went into emerging technologies. Yet the forecast for 2030 demand for these technologies is 603 tonnes. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, gallium mining reached 292 tonnes in 2011 with China, Germany, Kazakhstan and Ukraine being the main producers. Clearly there’s a gap needing to be plugged (and we should also take into account that over the next 17 years some present supply sources could be exhausted.)
Indium is going to be a challenge, too: in 2006 581 tonnes was mined, of which 234 tonnes went into emerging technologies. By 2030, those technologies will require an estimated 1,911 tonnes. Its main use is in indium-tin oxides for coating flat panel displays. But what now unforeseen technologies might require indium by 2030?
RARE EARTHS: Japan is not letting up on its efforts to find rare earths on the seabed. The Nikkei news service reports a research ship is about to sail to the areas around Minamitorishima, the small island group within its waters.
This is in expectation that the Jamaica-based International Seabed Authority (ISA) will this month grant Japan sole rights to explore and exploit these cobalt-rich crusts which contain REE (particularly neodymium and dysprosium) as well as manganese, cobalt, nickel and platinum. The ISA licence is expected to allow Japan exclusive rights for 15 years to explore six locations spanning a total of 3,000 sq. km in an area 600km southeast of Minamitorishima, its easternmost territory.
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