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Waking Up Washington to Critical Metals

Commodities / Metals & Mining Apr 04, 2011 - 03:30 AM GMT

By: Anthony_David


On March 11, 2011, The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held a congressional briefing on critical metals, which includes strategic metals and rare earth elements (REEs). The briefing – entitled “Securing America’s Supply of Critical Materials and Rare Earth Elements: Implications for Renewable Energy” – focused on the global supply of critical materials, developments in China, and how US policy could be framed such that the nation’s expertise in the occurrence, detection, extraction, processing, and recycling of these commodities could be strengthened.

Speakers at the event included Mark Johnson of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Kate Johnson of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Mineral Resources Program, Dudley Kingsnorth of the Industrial Minerals Company of Australia (IMCOA), and Andy Davis of Molycorp Minerals.

Speakers at the event pointed out that REEs occur quite abundantly on the earth’s crust and are not as rare as their name implies. They touched upon the importance of the 17 REEs in advanced technological applications such as airplanes, batteries, electric and hybrid vehicles, cell phones, computers, electronics, lighting systems, renewable energy systems and weapons systems – all of which are important for the nation’s economy and security. The materials are especially important in technologies that require magnets. They added that while some of the elements are essential for current applications, others are likely to be used in future technologies.

REEs help in enhancing efficiency and performance of several technologies besides making it possible to manufacture applications in very small sizes. All the REEs have different significance to clean energy technologies. Dysprosium, neodymium, terbium, europium and yttrium are the REEs of primary interest. Lithium is a non-REE critical material used for batteries and other applications.

China contributes over 97% of the global REE supply and consumes over 60% of it. However, China’s restrictive and unpredictable rare earth export policies have forced nations worldwide to explore non-Chinese sources of these materials. On the positive side, China’s policies have opened the doors to many non-Chinese REE projects. The US too is primarily dependent on China for these materials. In an effort to break the Chinese monopoly, the US based Molycorp has announced plans to reopen its Mountain Pass mine in California. Outside of China, Molycorp owns the world’s largest deposit of REEs.

The demand and supply equation for many of the materials is unbalanced. Undersupplied materials have naturally driven prices upward while others are oversupplied. One of the main tasks for the industry now is to identify new sources, and diversify along the complete supply chain – mining to processing. The briefing also pointed out that the US would have to develop capable workforce to locate and produce REEs from new sources. Outside China, expertise in the REE industry is still limited.

The USGS publishes both technical and non-technical data about global sources of critical materials. It has revised its estimates of REE reserves in China from 36 million metric tonnes to 55 million metric tonnes.

The DOE has been working in association with industry and other governmental agencies on the best ways to tackle the various issues. The ideal solution would of course be to develop and utilize technologies that use the most common materials – a solution that cannot be achieved easily. Other methods suggested by the DOE are developing technologies that can reduce the quantity of REE required in a product; better processes for separating and recovering critical materials from waste streams and ores; and aggressive recycling. However, it is not economically feasible to recycle small quantities of REEs like those found in cell phones.

By Anthony David

The mission of the Critical Strategic Metals Web Site

is to serve as a monthly compass for those who take a fundamental view of investment regarding the Molybdenum, Manganese and Magnesium metals markets, are concerned with the emerging critical under-supply of these strategic metals to Western nations and wish to profitability chart their course. Each month we will research and provide, in as short and concise a manner as possible, the most applicable information available on resources that will have the biggest impact on our day to day lives. Click here to sign-up for our FREE monthly report

© 2011 Copyright  Anthony David- All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisors.

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