Tellurium – the newest critical metal? And an insight into Sri Lanka’s unique graphite
An intriguing, almost throwaway line in a report from the GeoForum conference being held in South Africa: it said one solar energy company “has taken the step of employing geologists to go out and find tellurium to meet projected needs”.
Just how they’re going to manage that is not quite evident, as most tellurium is produced as a by-product of refining of lead or copper. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, production in 2012 is an imprecise matter; Canada produced 10 tonnes, Japan and Russia each 35 tonnes. There is tellurium produced in Texas but how much has been withheld for commercial reasons. It was not known whether any came from the rest of the world but the global total can’t be too far north of 100 tonnes.
There was another throwaway line this week, too, regarding this very minor metal. In his quarterly commodities review, Roger Bade at London broker Whitman Howard, in running through the minor metals, noted in passing that “tellurium prices in Europe are also up sharply”. (He was noting how indium prices were off their lows.)
All this makes one think that we should be giving somewhat more attention to tellurium, that maybe it has been the forgotten critical metal.
Here’s why: tellurium is vital to thin-film cadmium-tellurium solar cells. The report from the South Africa conference noted that if the world suddenly steps up solar energy development, there could be a squeeze on tellurium, citing the figure quoted by Murray Hitzman of the Colorado School of Mines that the U.S, would need 400 tonnes of tellurium for every gigawatt of solar energy, and the known world availability was just 48,000 tonnes (although the U.S. Geological Survey cites 24,000 tonnes — but that takes into account only tellurium contained in copper deposits; after all, some 90% of tellurium used is now recovered from slimes following refining of copper). The USGS also notes that several materials — including bismuth, calcium, lead, phosphorous, selenium or sulphur — can substitute for tellurium but with loss of efficiency and product characteristics.
In the meantime, add tellurium to your list of critical metals.
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GRAPHITE: Apparently graphite found in Sri Lanka is in a class of its own. This is the case being put by Australian explorer Bora Bora Resources (ASX:BBR). The company has just been granted an additional 156 square kilometres of additional exploration licences in the South Asian country, including ground directly south of the Kahatagaha-Kolongaha graphite mine which has been in production since 1872 and which has produced more than 300,000 tonnes of graphite at or above grades of 90% total graphitic carbon.
Their announcement includes a run-down of Sri Lanka graphite compiled by the 120-year-old New Jersey-based Asbury Carbons, the world’s largest processor graphite processor.
Ashbury says Sri Lankan deposits are of vein graphite type, known variously as Plumbago, Sri Lankan graphite and Ceylon graphite. The island is the only place to produce this type of graphite in commercial quantities. Serious mining of graphite in what was then the British colony of Ceylon began about 1824.
Due to the natural fluid-to-solid deposition process, vein graphite deposits usually grade above 90% pure with some reaching 99.5% TGC in the “as found” state. “There is no intimate mixing or association of the graphite with country rock as in conventional flake graphite deposits,” it explains.
Typical veins measure from centimetres to as thick as 2 metres, and vein graphite is available in sizes ranging from 8cm lumps to powder as fine as 5 micrometres.This type of graphite may offer superior performance since it has slightly higher thermal and electrical conductivity.
Sri Lanka, as I have reported here previously, seems to be making a come back in the world of graphite, with one German company investing $78 million there last December.
And it has a longer history than most in the graphite race today with use of the material on the island dating back to 1675
Here’s the Christian Science Monitor reporting in July 1914: “The island of Ceylon, off the coast of India, is the world’s greatest graphite-producing centre and the United States absorbs about one-half of its product”. In those days, the other main sources for the U.S. were Korea, Madagascar and Mexico.
Ceylon’s graphite was – along with its tea and rubber – vital in World War II. Once Japan entered the war, the only source other than Ceylon was Madagascar – and that was cut off until British and South African forces invaded the island to overthrow the pro-Vichy government there. Graphite was vital for armaments, crucibles, lubricants and dry batteries.
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