Is The Rare Earth Supply Crisis Due To Peak Production Capability Or Capacity?

by Jack Lifton on September 6, 2009 · 2 comments

in Rare Earths

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The current “crisis,” in the media, in the supply of rare earth metals is most likely due to nothing more sinister than mining capacity in China, the country which today produces some 97% of the world’s supply of rare earth metals.

There is sufficient, accessible by current technology, rare earth mineralization in North America, Australia, Southeast Asia (Viet Nam), and South Africa to not only make world industry independent of China, but, ultimately, and soon, to supply China’s domestic shortfalls of the rare earth metals, in general.

At the 5th International Rare Earths Conference in Hong Kong during November 17-19, 2009, sponsored by Roskill, an in-depth information provider for investors, the noted and highly respected Australian rare earths expert Dudley Kingsnorth, will present the results of a new study by him showing the estimated total size and average grade (percentage concentration) of the world’s “largest” rare earth elements ore deposits. His new chart will rank the world’s known deposits in order of total rare earths contained and, hopefully, recoverable.

Mr. Kingsnorth’s data will show conclusively that there is no danger of peak rare earth mining capacity being reached for the indefinite future..

I recently asked Mr. Kingsnorth what caused him to include in his chart only 6 or 7 ore bodies when he, and I, knew that there were many more than that now known, and also known to be substantial. His answer was that he tried to be very conservative and only included those deposits which would qualify as having been verified, as to size and grade, by the rules and regulations of either the financial securities agencies of the countries in which they were located or by independent third party verification via persons or agencies without conflicts of financial interest.

Mr. Kingsnorth will be speaking at the Managing Supply Chain Risks for Critical & Strategic Metals Summit, which I am co-chairing in Washington, D.C. during October 20-22, 2009, and I hope to engage him on the topic of the world’s reserves of rare earths there in a panel discussion.

Let me qualify what I am about to write: I have been “following” the rare earth “space” as an end-use materials engineer and as a mining analyst for nearly 50 years. I am not interested in discussing junior exploration companies that have “suddenly” found rare earth values in their old cores or in reexamining, or retaking, data from old cores. I am very interested in those junior mining companies that knew they had rare earths among other minerals which were their principal interest, those active miners who are now taking a second look at the concentration of rare earths in their residues, and those existing rare earth juniors who have been staking claims and buying shut-down rare earth properties discovered through data mining.

Having made the statement above, I want to say that Mr. Kingsnorth’s chart is, and should be, the conservative basis of all analysis of the world’s rare earth reserves. I however am going to speculate on the potential of many deposits that Mr. Kingsnorth will not have, as of yet, included for the reasons stated above.

In the interest of full disclosure I want to repeat what I have written before: I have physically been to Mountain Pass, California, and Thor Lake, Northwest Territories, Canada this summer to survey the properties of Molycorp Minerals and Avalon Rare Metals, respectively. I am this coming week, for the second time, going to speak at the Annual General Meeting of Great Western Minerals Group (GWMG) in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.  I have been analyzing the mineralogical data produced in and around the Lemhi Pass, Diamond Creek, and Powder River properties of Thorium Energy and I have reviewed data from Frontier Minerals in the Republic of South Africa. All of these companies have paid the expenses that I incurred on their behalf and one has paid me fees. I have not received any fees from a publicly traded company in any country, nor do I own, or have I ever owned, shares in any publicly traded mining, or mining related, company in any country.

First and foremost I want to speculate and say that I believe that Avalon and GWMG will both be producing heavy rare earths within 3 to 5 years in countries outside of China, countries which are politically friendly to the USA and who are current major trading partners.

Since China is today the world’s sole producer of the heavy rare earth elements, which are mainly dysprosium, terbium, and europium, from an end-user’s point of view this means that I am saying that there will be a major crisis brought about, by a supply interruption in the sourcing of the heavy rare earths from outside of China, if China should terminate immediately and all at once its export of these specific materials. However, that interruption would be cured by Avalon and GWMG within 3 years; within 5 years the world’s principal supplies of heavy rare earths will NOT be from China. China knows this well, by the way, and is taking this into account before taking drastic measures.

As for the light rare earths, Molycorp is now supplying 2,200 metric tons (t) per year of lanthanum and neodymium-praeseodymium to the market, from its existing pre-2002 reserves. I have been told that Molycorp will ramp up production from existing ore concentrate stocks to 3,000 t per year next year, and plans to restart mining in 2012 and at the same time to ramp up its refining capacity so that it can be producing 20,000 t per year of rare earth elements, in or soon after 2015. I have no doubt that substantial production of light rare earth elements (mainly lanthanum, cerium, and and neodymium-praseodymium) will be under way at Avalon and GWMG by 2015 and at the Lemhi Pass District in Idaho and Montana soon after that. I believe that by 2020 at the latest, the world will be independent of China as the source of all of its rare earth metals, and I believe that by 2015 or earlier China will be a net importer of rare earth ores or metals.

I also believe that the end-uses of the rare earth metals that exist today are more than sufficient to drive the demand to expand rare earth production for the next generation as 6,000,000,000 additional consumers enter the market today serving just the 600,000,000 in the West and upper echelons of the Far East.

The capability to double (and more than double) today’s total volume production (in China) of the rare earth elements is now being constructed in the East and the West. There are large and accessible reserves of rare earths concentrated not in one place, China, but in several places – North America, Australia, southern Asia outside of China, and South Africa. Politics as well as finance will determine where the productive capacity expands first (or if it ever does).

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1 henk mol November 4, 2009 at 8:28 AM

Dear editors and Jack
I am trying to get numbers about dysprosium production and consumption, and who actually is producing today. This metal is needed to get Nd2Fe14B magnets to work at 160 deg C in cars. So far we learned that between 6 and 15% of Nd in the magnets has to be replaced by Dy, and some of the Fe is to be replaced by Co to get the magnets stable at high temps although with a loss in total energy in the BH loop. The toyota Prius motors we reverse engineered have an estimated 40 grams of Dy and about 240 g of Nd for the combined drive motors (MG1 and MG2). In all, the motors contain about 1 kg of magnets having about 280 g of Nd/Dy mixture. Where on earth is the Dy coming from, as Japan alone is consuming an estimated 700 metric tons while production seems to be 100 – 200 tons or am I totally wrong now??? Anyway if brushless DC motors are halted due to lack of RE metals, electrified cars can also run with (less efficient and more bulky) AC induction motors. This is the next step in the analysis I am doing – what are the consequences for weight, size and bill of materials.
BR Henk Mol

2 Jack Lifton November 5, 2009 at 3:49 AM

At the present time all of the COMMERCIALLY PRODUCED dysprosium is coming from deposits in Southwest China called ionic clays from which the higher atomic numbered rare earths now in wide use, europium (atomic number 63), terbium (65), AND DYSPROSIUM (66) are recovered by a version of a heap leaching process using acids to solubilize and extract the REEs. The total production of dysprosium has been estimated by Mr. David Kennedy, the CEO of the UK’s Less Common Metals, Ltd, who is the non Chinese world’s foremost authority on the production of neodymium iron boron and samarium cobalt magnet alloys, at 1200 metric tons in 2008. I think it is clear just from your own “reverse engineering” that if Toyota needs 40 grams of dysprosium per Prius for the two electric “drive” motors then for the aggregate million vehicles to be made by Toyota, Honda, and Ford in calendar year 2009 there will be a use of 40,000,000 grams of dysprosium, which is 40 metric tons. By your calulations the full hybrid vehicles using dysprosium enhanced nd-fe-b magnets will also use 240 metric tons of neodymium in the drive motor magnets. Note that the nickel metal hydride batteries for the same one million vehciles will require 8,000 tons of lanthanum and, perhaps-Toyota does not release the figures-, an additional 1000 tons of neodymium.

The real “problem” for dysprosium consumption (demand) is the fact that even in 2008 there were 26,500 tons of REE magnet alloys produced. If, hypothetically, these were all of the same type as that used in the Prius drive motors then the need (demand) for dysprosium would be more than three times the supply. Thus clearly if this were the case then dysprosium would already be in very short supply. Mr. Kennedy told me yesterday that at the moment there does not seem to be such a problem, but that he would predict that if the magnet industry continues to grow at it current 10-15% a year rate then there will indeed be a dysprosium (and terbium) supply problem in the near future.

You can see why the Chinese are considering the elimination of the export of dysprosium, terbium, and europium, and when you add to the increasing demand the fact that China sees its current heavy REE production levels as good for at most 20-30 years more you can see that unless there are new and additional sources of the heavy rare earths in the near future a dysprosium supply gap will open and grow beginning shortly. The result of this gap would surely be the end of the availability of dysprosium outside of China. I will address this and related issues in my talk at the San Francisco Hard Assets Conference on November 22. I will also publish an article on this topic and what the Japanese are doing to prevent it for themselves in a near future article for The Jack Lifton Report.

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