Metals

Hmm.

and reprocessing of rare earth elements required by the conference report (H.Rept.
112-329) to accompany the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, states
that each SSN-774 Virginia-class submarine would require approximately 9,200 pounds of
rare earth materials, each DDG-51 Aegis destroyer would require approximately 5,200
pounds of these materials, and each F-35 Lightning II aircraft would require approximately
920 pounds of these materials.

H.Rept. 113-102, to accompany H.R. 1960, the proposed National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014.

So that’s the Congressional Research report everyone quotes. But where’s that doc which is being quoted therein? 113-192 is here:

https://www.congress.gov/congressional-report/113th-congress/house-report/102/1

And 112 329 is here:

https://www.congress.gov/congressional-report/112th-congress/house-report/329

Will we find our answer?

Hmm, apparently this gets pushed back a year:

Specifically, the report on the feasibility and desirability of recycling, recovery, and reprocessing
of rare earth elements required by the conference report (H. Rept. 112-329) to accompany the
National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, states that each SSN-774 Virginiaclass submarine would require approximately 9,200 pounds of rare earth materials, each DDG51 Aegis destroyer would require approximately 5,200 pounds of these materials, and each F-35 Lightning II aircraft would require approximately 920 pounds of these materials.

Hmm, the source report might well be this one: ““Report on Feasibility and Desirability of Recycling, Recovery, and
Reprocessing Rare Earth Elements,” September 2012” and that little bugger I can’t find at all.

Just a little thought

It’s a standard point to make about the Chinese rare earths trade that it pollutes the area around Bayan Obo with radioactive wastes. Which is does, there’s near always thorium around.

Except, except. Bayan Obo is also where China got the uranium for its bomb. So, how much of that radioactivity in that lake that The Guardian likes photographing is from the bomb program and how much from the rare earths?

An F-35 does not contain 417 kg of rare earths

This is one of those numbers that is widely bandied about:

One F-35 stealth fighter jet, dubbed by defence wonks as the “flying computer”, for instance, contains around 417kg of rare earths, according to a US congressional report.

It’s bollocks. At least, I am insistent that it’s bollocks.

An F-35 weighs, unladen, 13,300 kg. There’s no way that 4 or 5% of that is rare earths. Nonsense.

I have tried tracking it down. I can find the Congressional report that states this. But not the DoD report which the congressional is quoting from. So I cannot in fact check.

But what I am sure has happened is this. That there are 417 kg of things which contain rare earths has been transformed into 417 kg of rare earths.

As an example, and not to be taken seriously as an actual detail. A “rare earth magnet” is likely to be NdFedB (it can also be SmCo, or NdDyFeB, even NdDyTbFeB). But it’s Nd2Fe14B. Forget atomic weights because that’s being boringly detailed and just run with this idea that it’s 2/17ths Nd, or 12% Nd.

So, there’s a rare earth magnet in there. We counting the 12% toward that 417 kg, or 100%? Or, we’ve an electric motor, using a rare earth magnet. We talking the 12% of the magnet, 100% of the magnet, or 100% of the ‘leccie motor? In the absence of being able to see that DoD report I insist that it’s 100% of the motor being counted.

An F-35 contains 417 kg of rare earths is one of those errors which has multiplied through the information space. I insist it’s an error. If anyone wants to prove me wrong then I’d be delighted to read that DoD report…..

You readers know, don’t you?

Rare earth metals are among the most sought-after substances on the planet, powering everything from smartphones to electric cars and wind turbines. Yet few people can name them, let alone explain what they are used for.

Although even I struggle sometimes. Holmium, for example, used in the supercollider or whatever it is that’s at Cern. Other than that I once sold a kg to someone who makes calibration lenses for electrophotometers or summat like that. Other than that, no clue what it is used for. Ytterbium? Ummm…..

At the vanguard of efforts to break our dependence on Beijing for supplies of rare earths is a British company that will start building a £125m rare earth minerals processing plant at the Port of Hull in Yorkshire this summer. It aims to have it up and running by next year.

London-listed Pensana, which raised £10m in late December in a share placing in which fund giant M&G took a 5pc stake, is one of only three major producers outside of China and the only in Europe.

Its minerals separation facility, to be built in Saltend Chemicals Plant, aims to produce enough refined metals to meet 5pc of global demand – it has the potential to be one of the world’s largest hubs of rare earths processing.

And now we all know more than the Telegraph. The Saltend plant is to make oxides, not metals. Sigh.

It’s the environment that determines evolutionary fitness

A new primrose species is already under threat from mining for electric car parts, Kew Gardens scientists have warned.

A variety of Cape primrose found last year in Katanga, in the Congo, grows on copper ores in the mining region of the country.

The plant’s name, Streptocarpus malachiticola, means “growing on malachite” – because it is found on the Congo’s rich malachite seams, from which copper can be extracted for use in electrical wiring.

But it is under threat from the growing demand for copper as electric car sales rise.

Being able to grow on malachite is a useful adaptation – most plants can’t do that. So, score one for a useful evolutionary adaptation. Except, of course, when someone decides to come along and dig up the malachite at which point the environmental niche isn’t so useful.

Myself I find it interesting – or this bit at least. Does the malachite – or Cu – content have to be high enough to be worth mining to create the environment in which this primrose thrives? Or could we reseed worked out mines with them?

There’s the kiss of death then

Sir Tony featured in a promotional PR video in 2020 for Mr Nazarbayev, praising his leadership and saying Kazakhstan could look forward to its future with “confidence”.

Did I tell you about the time I once organised – OK, helped to – a $50,000 bribe to the Prime Minister of Kazakhstan? Well, to his fixer. In order to have a one hour meet with the PM? A company had had it’s mine renationalised – highly suspect that was – and then sold on cheap to the connected. And they wanted to be able to sit with the decision maker and see what might be salvaged. Turned would they just became another $50k down but there we are, it’s that sorta place and has been for decades.

Don’t Look Up

According to one I know who has actually bothered to watch the film it contains roughly this:

But at one point, there’s a tech billionaire (a version of Bezos or Jobs) who says that instead of destroying the asteroid, we can mine it for all the expensive rare minerals and it’ll be worth trillons. Something about yttrium, terbium, osmium, dysprosium and how we’re running short and the asteroid would contain 32 trillion dollars of it

Now, I’m going to have a very rough guess here. Osmium is fun, last time I saw – mebbe a decade back – possibly 500 a troy ounce. But a small market mind. Yttrium, $50 a kg for the oxide sounds about right. Hundreds of tonnes a year at tops. Dy is $couple of hundred, Tb $sixorsevenhundred a kg. 100 to 500 tonnes of each mebbe?

Not that I’d stand by those prices but they’re right range, so are market sizes. What the hell, call it all $250 million a year. So, someone drops 120,000 years of supply onto the planet in one large refinable lump. OK, let’s assume drops gently.

Prices just aren’t going to hold up, are they? Therefore the $32 trillion isn’t true either, is it? Prices, as we all should know, being reliant upon both supply and demand.

Bless

So, metals company to Tim, 20 odd years ago.

“We’ve got this great new method of making this metal”

“Hmm, but no one uses this metal”.

14 years ago

“We’ve got this great new method of using this metal”

“Hmm, but no one uses this metal.”

Today

“We’ve got this great new method of making this metal”

“Hmm…..”

Can’t recall whether it’s one or two bankruptcies along the way for these folks.

Sigh.

Idiot analysis

Unfortunately, EVs are careering towards a giant pothole — there isn’t nearly enough metal around to put in all the batteries we need. The race is on to develop deposits of lithium, nickel, cobalt and the jumble of other metals that make up a car battery.
…..
The UK has risked being a bystander in all this, but the government may be waking up to the danger. It has convened a taskforce to look into battery metal supply, is preparing a minerals strategy for next year, and is backing a nascent domestic supply industry in Cornwall.

However, the UK lags the EU — which first published a critical minerals list in 2014, and the US, where Joe Biden unveiled a detailed plan in June. This must be rectified urgently — to stop prices accelerating away from ordinary motorists, and to support a burgeoning electric car industry in the UK. We can’t afford to be left in the rear-view mirror.

The cure for high prices is high prices. There are entirely sumptuous sums being thrown at lithium supply. To the point that one group of researchers says they can extract – profitably – from the Red Sea. Don;t know whether they’re right or not but if they are then that’s supply sorted entirely.

For there’s no shortage of the metals, just a shortage of developed mines. Which is a problem that money solves rather nicely.

Just an experiment

A month into a new little scribbling job doing stock market ticker stuff. Not exactly the most taxing of tasks although the work rate is high. Sometimes it can be a little more than just “x went up and y went down”.

At which point a little experiment, concerning Helium One. Just to see how much work is needed to make that stand out that piece.

I’ve even just found out that the thing I’ve been saying about helium for years now is in fact true. That is, actual science has noted it – which is different from it merely being true because I say so. No, I don’t say that the science is quoting me, just that we’ve independently got to the same point:

The total helium resources in the United States – as of
the year 2006 – are given by the United States Geological
Survey (USGS) [32] in metric tons as 3.6 × 106 t and the total
resources outside the US as 5.2 × 106 t, thus giving a global
value of 8.8 × 106 t. (Note that this is a factor of several
hundred less than the amount of helium in the atmosphere.) The US, Qatar, Algeria and Russia have the largest
resources at their disposal. Nineteen plants are currently
in operation in the US, as well as 7 elsewhere. New plants
for helium in conjunction with liquid natural gas (LNG)
production will come online in the next few years in
Algeria, Qatar, Australia and probably Russia.

Quite so, the helium market is now a product of the LNG one.

Y’know, this worries

Worstall T (2015) Rio Tinto and Vale killed the commodities “super cycle” not China or the Fed, Forbes 29th November 2015

OK, so, how proud, I’m used as a reference in a scientific paper.

Mining’s contribution to national economies between 1996 and 2016

And of course I’m the Big Wahoonie as a result, right?

Except that’s just a little bit of journalism, bashed out in perhaps 20 minutes when I was looking for something to write about. On a site where I got paid by the number of pages views I got (1 cent per). Hey, it might even be right but it’s scribbles for money, not careful and considered opinions.

And yet this is the sort of rock that modern science is based upon? Knowing me as I do that worries.

Bollocks

Rare earth metals are not rare in nature, but rarely are they concentrated in amounts that make extraction and processing economically feasible.

Mixed rare earths concentrate is trivially cheap. a few thousand $ per tonne. So, that’s not something that’s difficult to produce. A price somewhere between lead and copper, around aluminium, that’s not a problem.

The individual rare earths can be expensive. And the process from mixed concentrate to individual can cost $20,000 a tonne in processing costs.

That means that it’s not the concentrations in nature that matter. Because getting to a 100% RE concentrate is, as demonstrated, cheap. It’s the separation tech that is the chokepoint…..

Here’s the thing

A useful little eye into mining:

Cornish Lithium has secured an £18m investment to speed up the development of its mining projects as the UK attempts to wean itself off a reliance on Chinese minerals.

OK.

Cornish Lithium argues the reserves underneath Cornwall are “globally significant”, thanks to a huge layer of granite running from the Isles of Scilly in the west to Dartmoor in the east.

Some of the rock is immersed in saline water, meaning it can be pumped to the surface.

There’s, erm, sorta, two types of mining. 1) “Is there anything there”? and 2) “It’s there, now, can we get it out economically?”

This is definitely 2). That Li is there, no doubt about it. As there should be associated with granite and tin. There’s that hot water flowing through the rock. Li is soluble in water, it’s in the water. Cool!

The Q here is whether it can be extracted economically? My bet would be yes. Modern work on desalination plants means membranes and all that are much better understood than they were even two or three decades back. Getting geothermal energy from it as well will aid too.

Now, of course, I don’t actually know, but that’s the way I would bet. Make of that what you will.

For then we come to the next bit. Which is that this sort of geothermal resource isn’t in fact all that rare. I know of at least two more regions where this will be true and I’ve not even gone looking. Knowing that extraction is economic is a public good – can’t stop someone knowing it nor using that knowledge once it exists. So, whether the mine actually makes a profit in the long term is another thing as success here will almost certainly mean those other sources also coming online.

Makes me disbelieve everything else the bloke says

Gell Mann Amnesia this isn’t, although perhaps part of that precursor stage. The jarring detail that calls into question everything else being said:

The price of iron ore is under pressure from massive Chinese production.

Rilly?

Well, no. The iron ore price is under pressure from a massive reduction in planned Chinese steel production. Not from any massive rise in domestic iron ore production.

Makes everything else said on the subject of metals and markets more than a little suspect, eh?

People getting stuff wrong

The process of mining bauxite is highly destructive to the surrounding environment. It is usually strip-mined, as it is almost always found near the surface of terrain, with little or no overburden.

No, bauxite is very low value – $30 to $50 a tonne sorta stuff. Therefore you always mine the surface stuff because there’s not enough money in the game to pay for lifting deeper deposits.

You strip mine because the damn stuff’s near everywhere and thus cheap as chips.

This isn’t quite and wholly how it works, no

The result is the same, the mechanism differs:

Canned drinks, smartphones and cars could cost more after the energy crisis sent the price of aluminium soaring to a 13-year high.

Industry figures have warned that costs faced by aluminium producers are rising so rapidly that they have little choice but to pass them on to companies further down the supply chain.

It means a host of goods – including everything from cans to tools, electronic gadgets and vehicles – become more expensive to make.

Making aluminium is particularly energy-intensive, leading some in the industry to dub it “solid electricity”.

True that the costs of making Al are largely the electricity costs of treating Al2O3. Some – a slightly old number but indicative – $900 per tonne Al perhaps.

However, few primary aluminium makers will be seeing a significant rise in their prices. Simply because that’s not how you set up an Al plant. First, you go find your cheap energy. Iceland’s geothermal maybe, Siberian hydro, Welsh nuclear (used to be, on Anglesey). Then you sign up for the long term and build your plant.

Your ‘leccie price is then fixed.

However, when the ‘leccie price soars the alternative uses of that power become more valuable. To the point that perhaps you should stop making Al and just sell the ‘leccie instead. This does indeed happen, Pacific NW Al makers did this a few years back. Better to sell cheap hydro power into the grid than mess around with actually doin’ stuff.

It’s not that costs rise. It’s that the opportunity costs of making Al do. Same end result of course but different mechanism.

Note that prices of scrap Al also rise at the same time. Folks don’t face the same rising costs to collect that, nor to process it into secondary alloys. But the price moves up all the same – opportunity costs again, not actual production costs.

Just a little story

Attempts to store the last Soviet space shuttle in a Russian museum have caused an international row.

The Buran, or Snowstorm, was a response to the American shuttle programme but was shelved after a single unmanned test flight in 1988.

The Americans used aluminium lithium (sorry, aluminum lithium) alloys in the Shuttle. Indeed, much of the development of those alloys stemmed from that program.

As I understand it – I am no engineer – this is about grain refinement. Other alloys use zirconium to do this – again, as I understand it, trying to get the atoms into a more ordered state, even if not into a crystal type order which gains strength etc – and the Al Li use both Li and Zr.

OK.

The Russians, facing the same technical problems, went after Al scandium alloys. Or, in fact, Al Zr Sc ones. This being better from the engineering point of view. Also a disaster from the cost one. Sc was an interesting and trivially important rare earth. No one used it for nowt. So, the entire supply chain had to be built for the one shuttle program.

This is the result of the Soviet misconception of economics. They assumed that since all value was created by labour then if people were set to labour then value was being created. They really did think this way too. Factories would be set up 2,000 km away from each other, one supplying parts to the other. Since people had to labour to transport components then value was being created, right?

So, uranium being extracted by the Caspian had some Sc in it (not unusual), a plant was built to extract it, 20 tonnes of Sc2O3 a year could be produced.

At market prices today the Li is maybe $20 a lb (as metal, what is used to make Al Li) and the Sc $1500 (metal content of oxide, what is used to make Al Sc) and there are a few applications where Sc is worth that cost. Building space shuttles ain’t one of ’em. The bits that went wrong on the US one weren’t about these alloys – not at all in fact. It was the bits that didn’t use them that did go wrong. To the point that I’ve had discussions with NASA about the next generation – the one that came to a screeching halt when the second bang happened. Seriously, on the Friday they were telling me they’d have a purchase order on the Monday for some test material, on Sunday the bang, program cancelled – about those tiles being made of these sorts of alloys instead.

As and when Berlin Wall etc this left the Soviets well ahead in the supply and understanding of Sc. Thus the lighting industry buying from there, Elon Musk asking me about Sc in Al (still the only email I’ve ever had from him) and Airbus building a wing out of Russian material and so on and on.

The world’s Sc industry was Russian because of this Buran shuttle. Fun, eh?

Today’s idiot business idea

Rhodium is about $35,000 a troy ounce. Rhodium is produced in nuclear reactors.

I know a bloke in Iran. I used to know a bloke in N Korea. I know a bloke at a platinum group metals refiner. So, get them to organise extracting the Rh from the spent fuel and profit!

Unfortunately, the Rh extracted is itself a radioactive isotope.

Now, that drawing board, where is it?

The Observer’s insistence

What is needed is urgent investment – private and public – in technologies that will address these issues. We must find materials for constructing batteries, solar panels and wind turbines without using resources that will lay waste to landscapes or the seabed and we must do this in the shortest time possible. Funding such work must be seen as a critical imperative. We can reach net-zero emissions and protect the environment, but only if such work is financed swiftly and comprehensively.

They’re worried that there won’t be sufficient terrestrial minerals to move away from fossil fuels. But we also mustn’t go deep sea mining because cute worms down there. So, spend fortunes trying to get out of this box.

Which betrays two logical failures – mutually contradictory as they slightly are.

The first is that just because we want there to be a solution doesn’t mean there is. This is true however much of our money is funnelled through the bureaucracy. Chemistry is chemistry, batteries that don’t rely upon cobalt may or may not be possible. But how much Rishi spends makes no difference to that whether they are or not.

The second, and contradictory to some extent, one is that they believe their own errors. All are so tied into this Club of Rome idea that terrestrial minerals are in short supply, that we’re about to run out, that they actually believe there aren’t enough to supply the transition. But this in itself is wrong. There’s plenty of cobalt, of copper, of rare earths, out there. It’s just a matter of how much we’re prepared to pay to get it. Your back garden has all three (or, counting the REs separately, all 19) of them in it. So, how much is your back garden worth, what’s the price of extracting them? Answers there are lots and too much but there’re bits of the planet where this isn’t true. We can indeed gain all the metals we desire we just have to be willing to pay the price. The entire thought that we face a metals shortage is driven by the earlier mistake of not understanding what a mineral reserve is in the first place.