by ALISHA HIYATE – THE NORTHERN MINER – Published: Nov 6, 2009
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Jack Lifton has an urgent warning for the United States when it comes to the supply of rare earth elements (REEs) — metals that are essential to everything from cell phones and LCD screens to military applications and hybrid cars.
Addressing attendees here at the first annual Infocast Risk Management for Critical and Strategic Metals conference, Lifton cautioned that the States’ nearly total reliance on China for rare earths may jeopardize the nation’s access to the high-tech metals in the future.
“When everything is made in China, it will be a Chinese decision whether you can have these things,” the author, consultant and rare earth expert told the audience. “I think we’re reaching a serious choking point here. We must develop production of rare earths in this country right now because it takes a while (to get production online).”
Once a producer of rare earths — the 15 lanthanide metals plus yttrium — the U.S. now relies on China for 95% of its supplies.
Over the three-day conference, attendees largely representing industry, government, and explorers of rare earths and other minor metals, heard that the U.S. — which is also now dependent on foreign supply for other strategic and essential metals, including germanium, tantalum and lithium — is right to be concerned about the situation.
Although the overall market for rare earths is small by volume, demand is on the rise, from 124,000 tonnes rare earth oxides (REO) in 2008 to a projected 200,000 tonnes REO in 2016, according to Dudley Kingsnorth, executive director of Industrial Minerals Co. of Australia.
Recent developments have shown just how precarious the U.S.’s position may be.
Exports from China have been falling steadily by about 6% a year, Kingsnorth said, and while he doesn’t see exports falling more dramatically than that in future, he does predict that China’s rapid consumption of the metals could cause it to run out of heavy rare earths in 20-30 years. While China provides 95% of the world’s rare earths supply (India and Russia are minor producers), it consumes about 60%.
And that may explain why, in August, a report by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology called for a complete ban on exports of some heavy rare earths — the most valuable and in demand of the REEs — terbium, dysprosium, yttrium, thulium and lutetium. A severe restriction on exports of the REEs neodymium, europium, cerium and lanthanum to a combined 35,000 tonnes a year, was also proposed.
Mark Smith, CEO of privately owned Molycorp Minerals, said that the spectre of a ban and additional restrictions have underlined the sense of urgency surrounding rare earths.
“We need to do something about it — not just look at China and hope they supply the rest of us forever,” Smith said. “China doesn’t have unlimited mining capacity.”
Molycorp’s Mountain Pass operation, which first began production in 1952 and came back online at the end of 2007 after being shut down for five years, is the sole U.S. producer of REEs.
Seeking to bolster its own manufacturing sector and create jobs, China is making the shift to new technologies, including flat-screen TVs, wind turbines and electric vehicles. To that end, it will not only consume more of its own resources in future, but also continue to reach into Africa, Australia, Canada, and other parts of the world for more.
“We’re all focusing on the fact that China is the leading producer (of rare earths),” Lifton said. “We need to focus more on the fact that China is a leading consumer.”
China’s centralized economy means that it can make the switch to new technologies quickly and efficiently. Much of its 4-trillion-yuan (US$586 billion) stimulus package is going into making that switch.
“They don’t have to spend a year in Congress to decide how that money is going to go out,” said Noah Lehrman, senior vice-president of Hudson Metals, a New York City-based company that supplies minor metals to industry.
Environmental concerns are also putting a crimp in Chinese production to the tune of about 10%, Kingsnorth said. The country is in some cases enforcing its own pollution laws. In other cases, word of chemical spills and other environmental damage spreads quickly through the Internet and other new technologies, pressuring the government to crack down on operations that are not up to code.
While many presenters and panelists sounded the alarm on rare earths, Chris Hartshorn, research director of Lux Research, a firm that provides strategic advice on emerging technologies, advocates a more measured response to a potential rare earths crunch. There may well be some REEs that will be in short supply and for which there are few or no alternatives, he says, but that’s not the bulk of them.
“It depends on where you are in the value chain,” he said in a post-conference interview. Hartshorn explains that while China may well impose further restrictions on exports of certain raw metals, “I would be surprised if the export of components (further down the value chain) would be restricted (to the same degree).”
The U.S., European Union and Mexico have taken their complaints about China’s export restrictions to the World Trade Organization. But in the meantime, the squeeze on Chinese exports has Lifton urging the U.S. to look north, rather than east. Canada, he said, is a friendly neighbour with a “treasure trove” of natural resources, small population and expertise in exploration and mining that already has China and Japan making investments.
“Why aren’t we?” Lifton asked.
And as rare earth projects take a long time to get online, it might be wise for investors to get in now — but not before they educate themselves on the many ways they differ from typical mining projects.
First, REEs occur together and must be mined and processed together, then separated. That affects the economics, because some elements, namely HREEs, are more valuable than light rare earth elements (LREEs), which are typically more abundant.
Second, the market for rare earths is small and opaque, which means pricing and production information is not readily available. The uncertainty that creates for investors means the only way a new project can make it to production is if the company has an offtake agreement with an end user.
And because each rare earths deposit is unique in terms of its mineral makeup, the metallurgical process must be tailor-made for each project. That involves a pilot plant — an expensive and lengthy step that’s also necessary to prove the end product will meet the requirements of the end user.
Finally, new applications for REEs are continually being developed, says Don Bubar, president and CEO of Avalon Rare Metals (AVL-T), which means that a deposit whose makeup is skewed toward REEs that are less valuable today, may be prized tomorrow.
“There’s no perfect deposit and if you do find one, it won’t be perfect in a few years,” Bubar said. Avalon is developing the Nechalacho REE deposit, in Canada’s Northwest Territories.
One other notable characteristic of the rare earths business is illustrated by veteran miner Molycorp.
The company is developing proprietary new technologies that use cerium, an LREE it produces that’s already in oversupply. Because you can’t leave the less valuable minerals behind, “that is a really good strategy,” says Lux Research’s Hartshorn.
While no one at the conference predicted a shortage of lithium any time soon, many commented that the domination of the market by a very few large suppliers — in Chile, Argentina, Australia and China (with minor production coming from the U.S.) — is a problem for automakers looking to bring electric vehicles to market.
While hybrid cars largely use nickel metal hydride batteries, electric cars that are due in show rooms as early as late next year, starting with the Nissan Leaf, will use still-to-be-perfected lithium ion batteries, which require high-grade lithium carbonate.
Future demand for lithium, which makes for lightweight, powerful batteries, really depends on how well-received electric vehicles are.
Jay Chmelauskas, president of Western Lithium Canada (WLC-V), said “true believers” think there will be a 10% adoption rate of electric cars, and in that scenario, the world will definitely need more lithium production.
“We will not run out of lithium, but we need to bring on more supply,” he said.
But the current hoopla around lithium could lead to oversupply, Hartshorn said.
Based on a recent electric vehicle report produced by Lux Research, he said there would be no pressure on lithium from this pivotal end user over the next 10 years.
The projections indicate a looming lithium battery oversupply will be upon us in 2015 “and easily beyond that,” Hartshorn says. Indeed, the best-case scenario for lithium producers, which assumes an oil price of US$200 per barrel, predicts an adoption rate (worldwide) of 0.3% for electric vehicles by 2020, with plug-in hybrids at 3.7%.
The study took into account different existing vehicle fleets, fuel prices and incentives in different parts of world.
Irving Mintzer, a principal of energy consulting firm MEG LLC disagreed on electric vehicle takeup, saying that changes in values, rather than economic drivers like oil, would prompt a shift to electric cars. He predicted that by 2030, as many as one-third of vehicles purchased in the U.S., or about 5 million cars, could have electric drive trains.
The amount of takeup depends not only on incentives offered by governments, but also on infrastructure, which Hartshorn noted depends on action by typically slow-moving utilities. Only a few have started to consider electric vehicles as a critical part of their future planning.
What’s certain is that all the recent hoopla around lithium and the electric car has spurred a flood of juniors to explore for the metal. Dominated as the industry is by a few giants, like Chile’s Sociedad Quimica y Minera (SQM-N) (SQM), that may be a risky place to be.
Novis Smith, vice-president technology of LithChem Energy International, had a warning for new entrants into the lithium space, reminding the audience that SQM has blown away the competition in the past by dropping prices. SQM, which produces lithium from brines in Chile as a byproduct of potash, is the world’s largest producer of the metal.
“They’re the 800-pound gorilla in the room and they’ll do what they want to do,” Smith cautioned.
Copyright © 2009 The Northern Miner.