Critical Raw Materials

Richard (Rick) Mills
Ahead of the Herd

As a general rule, the most successful man in life is the man who has the best information

A critical or strategic material is a commodity whose lack of availability during a national emergency would seriously affect the economic, industrial, and defensive capability of a country.

 

The French Bureau de Recherches Géologiques et Minières rates high tech metals as critical, or not, based on three criteria:

  • Possibility (or not) of substitution
  • Irreplaceable functionality
  • Potential supply risks

Demand is increasing for critical metals due to:

  • Economic growth of developing countries
  • Emergence of new technologies and products

Access to raw materials at competitive prices has become essential to the functioning of all industrialized economies. As we move forward developing and developed countries will, with their:

  • Massive population booms
  • Infrastructure build out and urbanization plans
  • Modernization programs for existing, tired and worn out infrastructure

Continue to place extraordinary demands on our ability to access and distribute the planets natural resources.

 

Threats to access and distribution of these commodities could include:

  • Political instability of supplier countries
  • The manipulation of supplies
  • The competition over supplies
  • Attacks on supply infrastructure
  • Accidents and natural disasters
  • Climate change

Accessing a sustainable, and secure, supply of raw materials is going to become the number one priority for all countries. Increasingly we are going to see countries ensuring their own industries have first rights of access to internally produced commodities and they will look for such privileged access from other countries.

 

Numerous countries are taking steps to safeguard their own supply by:

  • Stopping or slowing the export of natural resources
  • Shutting down traditional supply markets
  • Buying companies for their deposits
  • Project finance tied to off take agreements

In this article I am going to take a look at three reports covering what the US and Europe consider critical or strategic minerals and materials.

 

In its first Critical Materials Strategy, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) focused on materials used in four clean energy technologies:

  • wind turbines - permanent magnets
  • electric vehicles - permanent magnets & advanced batteries
  • solar cells – thin film semi conductors
  • energy efficient lighting - phosphors

The DOE says they selected these particular components for two reasons:

  • Deployment of the clean energy technologies that use them is projected to increase, perhaps significantly, in the short, medium and long term
  • Each uses significant quantities of rare earth metals or other key materials

In its report the DOE provided data for nine rare earth elements: yttrium, lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, samarium, europium, terbium and dysprosium as well as indium, gallium, tellurium, cobalt and lithium.

 

Five of the rare earth metals - dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, europium and yttrium - as well as indium, were assessed as most critical in the short term. The DOE defines “criticality” as a measure that combines importance to the clean energy economy and risk of supply disruption.

 

In a follow up to its earlier report the U.S. Department of Energy, Dec. 2011 - Critical Materials Strategy, examined the role that rare earth metals and other key materials play in clean energy technologies such as wind turbines, electric vehicles, solar cells and energy-efficient lighting.

 

Criticality MatrixFive rare earth metals – dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, europium and yttrium are considered to be the most critical of the elements considered in the report.

 

 Securing Materials for Emerging Technologies

 

A Report by the APS Panel on Public Affairs and the Materials Research Society coined the term “energy-critical element” (ECE) to describe a class of chemical elements that currently appear critical to one or more new, energy related technologies.

 

Energy-related systems are typically materials intensive. As new technologies are widely deployed, significant quantities of the elements required to manufacture them will be needed. However, many of these unfamiliar elements are not presently mined, refined, or traded in large quantities, and, as a result, their availability might be constrained by many complex factors. A shortage of these energy-critical elements (ECEs) could significantly inhibit the adoption of otherwise game-changing energy technologies. This, in turn, would limit the competitiveness of U.S. industries and the domestic scientific enterprise and, eventually, diminish the quality of life in the United States.”

 

According to the APS and MRS report several factors can contribute to limiting the domestic availability of an ECE:

  • The element may not be abundant in the earth’s crust or might not be concentrated by geological processes
  • An element might only occur in a few economic deposits worldwide, production might be dominated by and, therefore, subject to manipulation by one or more countries - the United States already relies on other countries for more than 90% of most of the ECEs identified in the report
  • Many ECEs have, up to this point, been produced in relatively small quantities as by-products of primary metals mining and refining. Joint production complicates attempts to ramp up output by a large factor.
  • Because they are relatively scarce, extraction of ECEs often involves processing large amounts of material, sometimes in ways that do unacceptable environmental damage
  • The time required for production and utilization to adapt to fluctuations in price and availability of ECEs is long, making planning and investment difficult

This report was limited to elements that have the potential for major impact on energy systems and for which a significantly increased demand might strain supply, causing price increases or unavailability, thereby discouraging the use of some new technologies.

 

The focus of the report was on energy technologies with the potential for large-scale deployment so the elements they listed are energy critical:

  • Gallium, germanium, indium, selenium, silver, and tellurium - employed in advanced photovoltaic solar cells, especially thin film photovoltaics.
  • Dysprosium, neodymium, praseodymium, samarium and cobalt - used in high-strength permanent magnets for many energy related applications, such as wind turbines and hybrid automobiles.
  • Gadolinium (most REEs made this list) for its unusual paramagnetic qualities and europium and terbium for their role in managing the color of fluorescent lighting. Yttrium, another REE, is an important ingredient in energy-efficient solid-state lighting.
  • Lithium and lanthanum, used in high performance batteries.
  • Helium, required in cryogenics, energy research, advanced nuclear reactor designs, and manufacturing in the energy sector.
  • Platinum, palladium, and other PGEs, used as catalysts in fuel cells that may find wide applications in transportation. Cerium, a REE, is also used as an auto-emissions catalyst.

The third report I looked at, “Critical Raw Materials for the EU” listed 14 raw materials which are  deemed critical to the European Union (EU): antimony, beryllium, cobalt, fluorspar, gallium, germanium, graphite, indium, magnesium, niobium, platinum group metals, rare earths, tantalum and tungsten.

 

Raw materials are an essential part of both high tech products and every-day consumer products, such as mobile phones, thin layer photovoltaics, Lithium-ion batteries, fibre optic cable, synthetic fuels, among others. But their availability is increasingly under pressure according to a report published today by an expert group chaired by the European Commission. In this first ever overview on the state of access to raw materials in the EU, the experts label a selection of 14 raw materials as “critical” out of 41 minerals and metals analyzed. The growing demand for raw materials is driven by the growth of developing economies and new emerging technologies.”

 

For the critical raw materials, their high supply risk is mainly due to the fact that a high share of the worldwide production mainly comes from a handful of countries, for example:

  • China - Rare Earths Elements (REE)  
  • Russia, South Africa – Platinum Group Elements (PGE)
  • Democratic Republic of Congo - Cobalt

Taking all the metals, from all three lists, gives us: 

 

Antimony

beryllium

Cerium  

Cobalt

Dysprosium

Europium

fluorspar

Gadolinium

Gallium

Germanium

Graphite

Helium

Indium

Lanthanum

Lithium

Magnesium

Neodymium  

Niobium

Palladium

Platinum

Praseodymium

Rhenium

Samarium

Selenium

Silver

Tantalum

Tellurium

Terbium  

tungsten

Yttrium

 

The key issues in regards to critical metals are:

  • Finite resources
  • Chinese market dominance in many sectors
  • Long lead times for mine development
  • Resource nationalism/country risk
  • High project development cost
  • Relentless demand for high tech consumer products
  • Ongoing material use research
  • Low substitutability
  • Environmental crackdowns
  • Low recycling rates
  • Lack of intellectual knowledge and operational expertise in the west

Conclusion

Critical materials should be on every investors radar screens. Are they on yours?

 If not, maybe they should be.

 

Richard (Rick) Mills

rick@aheadoftheherd.com

www.aheadoftheherd.com

 

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Richard is host of Aheadoftheherd.com and invests in the junior resource sector. His articles have been published on over 300 websites, including: Wall Street Journal, SafeHaven, Market Oracle, USAToday, National Post, Stockhouse, Lewrockwell, Uranium Miner, Casey Research, 24hgold, Vancouver Sun, SilverBearCafe, Infomine, Huffington Post, Mineweb, 321Gold, Kitco, Gold-Eagle, The Gold/Energy Reports, Calgary Herald, Resource Investor, Mining.com, Forbes, FNArena, Uraniumseek, and Financial Sense.

 

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Legal Notice / Disclaimer

 

This document is not and should not be construed as an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to purchase or subscribe for any investment.

 

Richard Mills has based this document on information obtained from sources he believes to be reliable but which has not been independently verified; Richard Mills makes no guarantee, representation or warranty and accepts no responsibility or liability as to its accuracy or completeness. Expressions of opinion are those of Richard Mills only and are subject to change without notice. Richard Mills assumes no warranty, liability or guarantee for the current relevance, correctness or completeness of any information provided within this Report and will not be held liable for the consequence of reliance upon any opinion or statement contained herein or any omission.

 

Furthermore, I, Richard Mills, assume no liability for any direct or indirect loss or damage or, in particular, for lost profit, which you may incur as a result of the use and existence of the information provided within this Report.

 

 

 

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