2016: Turnaround for Tech Metal Prices? Part 1

IMG_42502015 was not a good year for technology metals (precious metals, rare earth elements and strategic metals). From a perspective of industrial use, what is the likely development in demand and price in 2016? Part one of my condensed analysis was just published exclusively on Kitco News. Click here to read. Parts 2 and 3 will deal with the other groups of metals.

New: Strategic Metals Price Tool on Kitco

Exciting news: pricing information for a number of strategic metals including some rare earth elements is now available on the Kitco Website at http://www.kitco.com/strategic-metals/ .

Obtaining good information on these metals has been difficult in the past because – other than gold or silver – they are traded only between market participants and not at official exchanges. Prices quoted therefore often rely on the last transactions known as a benchmark. What is more, these metals found predominantly technical application the past. My “Tech Metals Insider” column on Kitco News has been featuring the many facets and uses of them for the past two years. Today, due to low prices and the high growth potential of many of the metals, more and more investors are taking an interest in them. The new pricing chart will help them in learning about the markets for each of them.

That said, the feature just launched today and while it is great, it is probably not perfect. Which is why I invite your comments and ideas to make it better over time. Do you like the information provided? What else should we be showing (charts showing pricing history are already in the making)? Are there other metals that should be on there? Please e-mail me your feedback, we will improve the page over time.

Last not least, here is how to get to the page:

Screenshot

CERION: Technology Metals go Nanotech

Although nanotechnology is still in its infancy, according to on one technology research and development company, the trend towards smaller devices like Apple’s iWatch and the need for microprocessors means that this sector will continue to be an important demand source for technology metals like gold and silver.

Click here to read this week’s full article published on Kitco News.

Cerion Pic 1

Rare Earth Elements vs. Rare Metals – an overview

By Mike Albrecht, PE – Reposted with permission of the author

In many of the discussion on rare earths there is some confusion between rare earth elements (REEs) and rare metals (RM’s).  Both are strategic minerals, and important in modern society in everything from our cellphones to our cars and even in our houses, but they are different.

REE vs RMThe REEs are the lanthanide series (lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, and lutetium) plus scandium and yttrium. Usually broken down into the light REEs (LREEs) (lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, samarium, and europium) and the heavy REEs (HREEs) (gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, lutetium,) which usually include scandium and yttrium.  REEs (both light and heavy) are among the heaviest naturally occurring non-radioactive elements, and are extensively used in energy and manufacturing technologies.

Contrary to their label, REEs are not necessarily “rare”; the shortage lies in the lack of concentrated deposits that are economically feasible to recover.  Fortunately, REEs are often found together due to similar chemical properties.  REEs form crystalline complexes with nonmetal elements such as in monazite (CeLaPrNd)PO(­4) and can have varying chemical compositions while remaining structurally indistinguishable in nature.

REEs play a critical role in existing and emerging energy, scientific, and military technologies. For example, dysprosium is used for heat-resistant permanent magnet alloys in wind turbines, and tellurium is used in solar panels. Compact fluorescent bulbs depend heavily on praseodymium as a phosphor material.  And particular as the developed world continues to invest heavily in green energy technologies. In general HREEs are more valuable than LREEs.

The Rare Metals (RMs) (niobium, tantalum, cobalt, indium, zirconium, gallium, and lithium) are a collection of metallic elements used in emerging technologies which are often confused with REEs. The RMs, however, have few common similarities. Unlike REEs they are not found in proximity to one another on the periodic table. Four of these elements are transition metals belonging to three distinct periodic groups and two periods. Two of these elements are metalloids, meaning that they have certain metallic uses and certain non-metallic uses. RMs have very different chemical properties from each other. For instance, cobalt is the only ferromagnetic element of the group. Despite the diversity of these elements, all are critically important for the development of specific technologies such as industrial alloys. Some RMs can be used as substitutes for certain REEs, while other rare metals have completely unique applications.

REEs Geology and Mining

REEs occur in many minerals but typically in concentrations too low to be refined in an economical manner.  While the concentration of REEs in the Earth’s crust is estimated to be higher than the concentration of other metals mined for industrial use, such as Cu or Zn, the REEs are not usually concentrated in ore deposits in amounts that can be easily or economically mined.

Economically exploitable REE concentrations are generally found in uncommon types of igneous rocks such as carbonates and alkaline rocks. They can also be found (as parts of mineral compounds) in placer deposits, residual deposits due to weathering, pegmatites, iron-oxides copper-gold deposits, and even in marine phosphates. Combined with the scattered nature of deposits, exploration companies are still searching for suitable locations to mine, and the price volatility of the REE market, especially in the recent years has not helped.

Processing REEs is often a two stage process, with the first stage being a standard mineral processing approach with crushing, scrubbing, and flotation to produce a concentrate.  The second stage is primarily a hydrometallurgical process featuring leaching and precipitation, with each REE being handled by a separate stage. Due to the large number of steps the REEs must go through to be purified requiring many different chemicals and reagents for these processes, there is a potential of creating toxic waste, which must be handled.

RMs Geology and Mining

High-grade ores naturally occur in specific regions within a few countries. Tantalum and niobium are typically found in ores together, primarily in coltan. 80% of coltan is mined in the Congo. Cobalt is typically found in copper or nickel ores. 40% of cobalt also comes from the Congo.

There are no sites specially dedicated to mining indium. It is found in very low quantities in zinc ore.  Like Indium, Gallium is often produced as a byproduct of Zinc and Aluminum mining.

80% of world zirconium comes from igneous rock and gravel mined in South Africa and Australia.  While zirconium is more abundant than copper and lead, most of its sources are not economically viable to mine.

Lithium is extracted from pegmatites, brines, and sedimentary rocks. The highest concentration brines occur in the relatively shallow ocean waters on the coasts of Chile, Argentina, China, and Tibet. Trace amounts of lithium are found in almost all igneous rocks and in the waters of mineral springs, but it is difficult to find economically viable deposits.

The RMs are mined in fairly conventional manners in either surface or a few cases underground operations. The processing is in a conventional manner with crushing, grinding, and flotation being the common processes to produce a concentrate that is then smelted.  Some lithium deposits are from brines where an in-situ method is employed.

More about Mike Albrecht (who is not related with me, as far as we could determine) at http://www.smartdogmining.com

Samarium – both conductive AND not? (Republished)

How we discovered ‘impossible’ material that both conducts electricity – and doesn’t

Suchitra Sebastian, University of Cambridge

Metals, which conduct electricity, and insulators, which don’t, are polar opposites. At least that’s what we’ve believed until now. But we have discovered that a well-known insulator can simultaneously act like a conductor in certain measurements. We don’t yet know the reason for this mysterious behaviour but it is likely due to new and exciting quantum effects.

The finding is surprising because electrons in insulators, such as glass, are largely stuck in one place, yielding high resistance to the flow of electricity. On the other hand, electrons in conducting materials such as metals flow freely over long distances. So how can you possibly get electrons behaving in both ways in a single material?

One way is to have a sandwich comprising a surface that is conducting juxtaposed with a bulk that is insulating. A category of materials known as topological insulators has recently been discovered to have this property. But what we found is a material in which the bulk itself behaves both as a metal and an insulator.

Crystal clear?

The material we explored is a well-known insulator that has been studied since the 1960s and has been of interest more recently due to its potential topological insulating behaviour: samarium hexaboride.

The samarium hexaboride crystal we used in the experiment.
Geetha Balakrishnan, Author provided

We made the discovery by applying a magnetic field and looking for undulations in sample properties such as the resistance and magnetisation – a property known as “quantum oscillations”.

Such quantum oscillations are inherently a property of metals, where they map out a construction known as the “Fermi surface”, which roughly represents the geometry traced by the orbits of electrons in the material. In this way, they reveal details about the movement of electrons – which is why the measurement is typically used to better understand the properties of conducting materials.

So it came as a shock when we placed a small sample of the insulating material on a cantilever in a magnetic field, and saw rapid wiggles on the screen indicating that the electrons were travelling long distances characteristic of a metal.

“You do realise, this is impossible,” was my colleague’s first response when I told him the news. The next surprise was when we cooled down the material further, close to absolute zero (which is zero Kelvin, or -273 deg C). We then found that not only was the material defying predictions of insulating behaviour, it was also severely violating the rules for conventional metals.

Explaining the inexplicable

How can we resolve the apparent contradiction inherent in a material that is both a metal and an insulator? One possibility is that, contrary to current understanding, electrons in certain insulators can somehow behave as if they were in a metal.

This behaviour may involve the strange properties of quantum mechanics. According to quantum mechanics, particles can occupy two states at the same time.

Spooky cat.
Robert Couse-Baker/Flicr, CC BY-SA

That is why the famous Schrödinger’s Cat can be both dead and alive. Schrödinger’s cat is a thought experiment in which a poor cat is put in a box with a flask of poison and a radioactive source. If an internal monitor detects radioactivity, the flask is shattered, releasing the poison that kills the cat. But as long as we don’t check the monitor, we have to consider the cat both dead and alive.

In this way, the strange behaviour of our material could be explained by the fact that we’ve discovered a new quantum state that fluctuates between being a metal and an insulator.

It could also be that we have discovered a new quantum phase of matter. Quantum physics can result in trillions of electrons in materials acting collectively to exhibit dramatically different properties from what they do individually. Our discovery of a material that is neither a conventional metal nor a conventional insulator could be such an “emergent” quantum phase of matter.

An exciting outcome of our finding is that many creative theoretical proposals are being invented to potentially explain our baffling results. In order to understand the new physics underlying our discovery, we plan to do more experiments on high-quality crystals to distinguish between predictions of the various theories.

Whichever the explanation turns out to be, decades of conventional wisdom regarding the fundamental dichotomy between metals and insulators are likely about to be turned on their head.

The Conversation

Suchitra Sebastian is University Lecturer in Physics at the Cavendish Laboratory at University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.