Technology Metals: The Forgotten Players
Brazil a future rare earth powerhouse? Poland a leading silver player anytime soon? India a forgotten graphite producer? And all that antimony in Bolivia! (And does anyone remember that large potash deposit lying under central Michigan?)
A browse through the latest commodity reports compiled by the U.S. Geological Service is a timely reminder for many of the complexity of potential supply sources of resources of various technology metals. Call them the forgotten players.
Antimony: In late 2013 a producer restarted an historic antimony mine near Reno, NV. A Canadian company produces the metal in the Australian state of Victoria, another mine in New South Wales is being brought back into production and, as we know from Christopher Ecclestone, his Geodex Minerals is planning to get into producing antimony in Canada and elsewhere.
But we also know that China is, by far and away, the dominant player. According to USGS, that country accounted for 125,000 of the 160,000 tonnes mined worldwide in 2014. The next biggest player was Myanmar (the USGS still calls it Burma) with 9,000 tonnes.
But then go the USGS estimates of reserves. China still leads with 950,000 tonnes and there is Russia with 350,000 (and producing just 7,000 tonnes last year) and, in third place, is Bolivia with reserves of 310,000 tonnes (and mining 5,000 tonnes in 2014). Then it’s a big drop-away to the next reserves figure, Tajikistan at 50,000 tonnes (and mining 4,700 tonnes last year).
Graphite: All these discoveries, all that exploration, all those off-take agreements — but very little showing up yet on the USGS database. No mention of Australia, Tanzania, Mozambique, and various other countries where explorers are turning up graphite.
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Of course, much of what has been reported from explorers so far comes into the category of resource rather than reserves, with only five countries listed as having the latter. China, as would you expect is in the lead, with 55 million tonnes. The No. 2 reserves holder is Brazil (40 million tonnes) followed by India (11 million). The only other listed are Mexico (3.1 million tonnes) and Madagascar (940,000 tonnes). In terms of production, only one country comes anywhere near China’s 780,000 tonnes last year, and even then India is a distant second at 170,000 tonnes.
But, in terms of reserves, expect that USGS database to undergo some radical revisions as the global exploration explosion firms up figures of new graphite resources.
Rare Earths: China, again, with 55 million tonnes left is in the lead — although one wonders about that figure, and it is somewhat meaningless anyway because it is not broken down into light and heavy elements, and so gives no clue to as the remaining reserves of the latter; and without the grades it is not much help. However, that is not the point of today’s exercise: rather it is to look at the other potential players. According to the USGS, Brazil has 22 million tonnes, Australia 3.2 million tonnes, India 1.8 million tonnes, the U.S. 1.8 million and Malaysia 30,000 tonnes.
As with graphite, this pecking order will change: Tanzania is just one country that will, at some stage, show up on the USGS table.
Niobium: There has not been any niobium production in the U.S. since 1959 and only Brazil and Canada make it on to the USGS table, although the agency notes that the U.S. has 150,000 tonnes of niobium identified resources, although in 2013 these were considered uneconomic. Tanzania could soon be added to the list with an Australian company having defined a decent-sized resource.
Silver: Yes, it is a technology metal, being in solar panels, medical equipment and used for water purification (among other tech things). Mexico and Peru are the big bananas in this business, and Australia has the world’s largest silver producing mine. But when we look under reserves, Peru is in the lead with 98.9 million tonnes, but then on second-equal are Australia and, surprisingly, Poland, both with 85 million tonnes still in the ground. Chile is fourth with 77 million tonnes. But Poland: even as someone who has been writing about silver for many years, this comes as a surprise.
Potash: Canada by a country mile, both in production and reserves (1.1 billion tonnes of the latter in terms of recoverable K2O). For the U.S. the report cites the Paradox Basin in Utah and the Holbrook Basin in Arizona as containing potash. But then here’s something you may not know: “A large potash resource lies about 2,100 metres (just under 6,900 feet) under central Michigan and contains about 75 million tonnes”. Not likely to be developed in the coming decade or two, given Russia, Belarus, Israeli and North American output and costs (or production near surface from salt lakes in the not too distant future), but something future generations might find comes in handy.
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