Metals

Oh FFS

Exploiting lunar resources and building a staging post to Mars are now a key part of America’s geopolitical strategy. The “barren” moon is really a commodity sweet shop – with significant deposits of gold, iron, magnesium and titanium….

Iron’s $100Iron’s $100 a tonne to any realistic level of accuracy. Titanium dioxide is $500 a tonne – it’s turning it into metal that costs the cash. Magnesium’s a couple of dollars a pound here on Earth.

Anyone think that Moon to Earth transport costs – forget the costs of the system to enable that – are ever going to get that low?

Quite, it’s valueless for whatever we do down here. Sure, there’s a value to what is done up there, building stuff to go further. But that’s a very different value calculation for it depends on what we’re going to carry on and do up there by going further. There never will be a payoff (Helium 3, possibly, excepted) to shipping minerals or metals from there to here. Never.

Orbiting solar panels, shipping down electricity by microwave link, that sounds pretty cool. But physical shipment down? Naaah. Never.

OK, so this is bollocks then

The largest proven reserves of rare earth
elements like indium, tellurium, dysprosium, and
neodymium are found in China’s Inner Mongolia
province.

He means the Bayan Obo mine. Which isn’t, as far as I understand it, a source of indium or tellurium. Nor, actually, dysprosium, at least not in any major sense for that last. It does produce neodymium. So, we’ve a 25% success rate in claims here.

Oh, and tellurium and indium are not rare earths. And come from copper slimes and zinc sulfides respectively.

Or, it’s bollocks.

Further bollocks:

In 2019, some 20,000 tons of copper were
mined, and world reserves stood at about
870,000 tons.24

Footnote 24 takes us to here:

(Data in thousand metric tons of copper content

Propaganda always works better if it’s at least vaguely grounded in knowledge.

No they’re bloody not

Seriously Telegraph, get a grip:

Chinese accused of manipulating steel market to make a killing on the London Metals Exchange

The allegation is about nickel.

The centre of City metal dealing is facing pressure to launch an investigation into the nickel market after it was rocked by a supply shock last year.

Sources told The Sunday Telegraph the European steel association ­Eurofer is among those urging the London Metal Exchange (LME) and Financial Conduct Authority to investigate the nickel market after stockpiles plunged late last year, when Indonesia brought forward an export ban on nickel ore.

A particular steel company is alleged to be involved – by dint of having its own nickel mine in Indonesia – but the allegations simply aren’t about manipulation of the steel market.

That’s point 1, that it’s nickel, not steel.

Point 2 is that the LME does have steel contracts, yes. And nickel’s an input into steel, yes. But the nickel price is only a major input into stainless steels. A useful but not conclusive definition of stainless being steel with a high nickel content.

The LME doesn’t run contracts on stainless steel. Manipulating the LME steel market through nickel is unlikely then.

Now, I don’t expect everyone to know this. But I do expect a journalist writing about the metals market to at least research it enough to get it right. More fool me, eh?

Not 100% convinced myself

Scientists and archaeologists have analysed slagheaps left by the copper mines in Edom, an area encompassing parts of what is now southern Jordan and Israel. They found signs that mines in different parts of the region made the same advances in smelting techniques at the same time in the 11th century BC, just before the age of the biblical Kings Saul, David and Solomon.

You know, knowledge being a non-rivalrous and often enough non-excludable good.

Sure, being part of the same political organisation will aid in the spread of such knowledge. So, for example, the turn of the 19th/20th century saw advances in gold extraction from ore. Likely this did spread through the Empire, from S Africa to Oz perhaps, faster than it did to Siberia or the US.

But not entirely convinced that you’d be able to measure that speed from slag heaps……

Is this the JP Morgan cornering the silver market thing?

I’ve not been paying attention to this as I regarded it all as just another conspiracy take. That JP Morgan – and or some traders – were cornering the global silver market. That they’d watched the Bunker Hunts and worked out how to do it successfully. It’s one of those things that’s been on the investment boards for ages.

Thing is, is it actually true?

Two current and one former precious metals traders at JPMorgan Chase have been charged with manipulating futures markets in what prosecutors described as a massive, multi-year conspiracy run out of the bank.

The US Justice Department said three men ripped off market participants and even clients as they illegally moved prices for gold, silver, platinum and palladium.

Prosecutors allege that over eight years and thousands of unlawful trades the men engaged in activities that resulted in them being charged with multiple counts of fraud and conspiracy, including racketeering.

Is that what this is? Or are we talking about something more like Libor? Where people were fiddling the fix by a couple of basis points to favour their own futures positions?

The difference. If it’s an attempted corner then the price has been out by tens of dollars an ounce – which is the wilder claim I’ve seen. If it’s like Libor then it’s a cent at most out, and either way on any particular day. Anyone know more about this case?

I write a letter

Sirs,

Ruth Maclean tells us (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/27/russians-have-special-status-politics-and-mining-mix-in-guinea) that the Rusal owned Friguia complex in Guinea “mines bauxite and refines it into aluminium.” Sadly not so, the plant produces alumina. A few letters difference might not seem like much but the transformation of alumina, the oxide, into aluminium, the metal, requires the addition of some $1,000 worth of electricity per tonne produced. This is not something normally done in an energy deficient African economy.

yours etc

An interesting question

One I don’t know the answer to:

Blast furnaces such as the one at Scunthorpe make steel from scratch and, once shut down, are more or less impossible to replace. Greener, less energy-intensive electric arc furnaces, of which the UK has four, can make steel by recycling scrap. At present, though, they do not achieve the quality levels that a blast furnace can, at least not without incurring great expense in removing impurities.

And the ability to make such high-grade steel domestically is crucial to a nation’s defence capability. Steel is used in aeroplanes, ships, guns, tanks – more or less everything the military uses. If Scunthorpe were to close, the UK would be left with one blast furnace, at Port Talbot in Wales, which does not make the same products.

They’re right about the difference between a blast and arc furnace. Sorta right about the quality – the big change in modern steel is how much closer an arc can now get to the quality of blast furnace steel.

But military steel? High quality? Not really sure about that at all. Anyone know?

They’ve got this so wrong

It’s actually sad to see scientific organisations descending to this level of idiocy:

The European chemists organisation – EuChemS – has just added to the torrent of environmental drivel with their new periodic table. They’re trying to tell us which elements are going to run out when and thus tell us all that we’ve got to recycle. The entire process is bunkum because they’ve not understood the first thing about the supply of minerals. They simply do not know the meaning of mineral reserve that is.

Sigh.

This could be interesting

Suppliers to the steel tycoon Sanjeev Gupta’s rapidly growing empire have warned they are struggling to get credit insurance and are owed substantial sums.

Five companies that supply goods and services to parts of the Gupta Family Group (GFG) Alliance’s British operations told The Sunday Times they were struggling to secure payment from the steel, commodities and energy conglomerate.

He’s been spending a fortune in borrowed money buying up marginal metals assets. Credit insurers refusing to insure is the first sign that it’s not working.

Easy enough to do

A MARRIED couple from Shropshire were “groomed” into supplying parts for Iran’s nuclear programme, a court has heard.

Paul Attwater, 65, and Iris Attwater, 66, smuggled prohibited aircraft parts from their company Pairs Aviation to Alexander George, 76, in Malaysia who supplied Iranian aviation firms.

Concluding that the couple had been “very, very naive”, Judge Michael Grieve QC yesterday handed the couple suspended sentences after Mr Attwater insisted he had no idea the parts he was exporting had a military application.

What might have a military application – “dual use” items – can have a very wide definition. I know this very well indeed.

Way back when it was Iraq, not Iran, that was the concern. There’s a specific alloy that is used only in Soviet style nuclear plants. Western use a different alloy, each is only used in nuclear. We had a nice little business buying the Soviet stuff as scrap – usual destination was aluminium alloys for boy racer car wheels. All entirely legal and kosher.

However, if we’d sold the tubes, as tubes and so not as scrap, to people who then put them into the Iraqi nuclear program (can’t recall if there ever was one but at the time all thought that….) then that was a possible 20 year sentence.

To the point that there was a stash of such tubes in Cyprus which we made repeated attempts to buy as scrap, at the scrap price. Never got anywhere as it appears that this was, even if a real stash, a temptation being monitored, to put it lightly, by security types to see who would buy as tubes and try to ship to Iraq. I’ve seen at least one trial reported where people did try to buy as tubes and ship.

Have also dealt with radiation hardened chips for rockets and satellites. If they went into Soyuz to go to the space station then that’s fine. If they got diverted to military use then potential 20 years jug time again.

That is, exactly the same item can be entirely legal or horribly not so dependent upon who is the buyer. And no, you don’t get to claim ignorance of the end user. Strict liability applies here, if the bad guys get it then you’re guilty. The sentence might mitigate, the jury might, but not liability.

It’s an interesting area of business. Ahem.

Science being another thing The Guardian doesn’t understand

A newly identified group of materials could help recharge batteries faster, raising the possibility of smartphones that charge fully in minutes and accelerating the adoption of major clean technologies like electric cars and solar energy, say researchers.

The speed at which a battery can be charged depends partly upon the rate at which positively charged particles, called lithium ions, can move towards a negatively charged electrode where they are then stored. A limiting factor in making “super” batteries that charge rapidly is the speed at which these lithium ions migrate, usually through ceramic materials.

There are many different battery technologies, all of which do involve ions*. Most of which do not involve lithium. Thus lithium ions – despite being part of one battery technology – are not common to all battery technologies.

Now, researchers at the University of Cambridge have identified a group of materials called niobium tungsten oxides through which lithium ions can move at astonishingly high rates, meaning much faster charging batteries.

Well, yes, that is interesting.

Another advantage of these alternative materials is that they are cheap and straightforward to make. “These oxides are easy to make and don’t require additional chemicals or solvents,” said Griffith.

That’s interestingly wrong. A major source of Nb being that coltan which produces the Ta for mobile phone capacitors. You know, all that blood minerals stuff all over again? Yes, there are other sources but still. And it’s not cheap. The Ti (note, the oxide, not the metal) is hundreds of $ per tonne, yup, that’s cheap. We can divert the stuff we use in white paint if we desire. But the Nb? Definitely dollars per pound, perhaps tens of $ per lb. Not exactly what we do call cheap.

And if we’re to get it from Ta containing minerals (not an absolute necessity) we’ve got significant processing pollution (using hydrofluoric acid is not for the faint of heart and yes, we do have to) and again significant radioactive residue (there’s always Th in them thar hills).

Oh, and reprocessing Nb and Ti mixtures isn’t easy. OK, my experience is with the metals but still….

*OK, possible to argue here but good enough.

Ah, yes, I have mixed Ti and W, haven’t I? Sigh, still, this was worth what you paid for it then.

Sorry, this amuses

Russia’s FSB security services raided a top space research centre Friday as part of an investigation into staff alleged to have passed secret information on Moscow’s hypersonic missile programme to the West.

Some 20 years back work on the US hypersonic missile was done in Moscow. I know, I organised it.

OK, it was minor enough, producing hafnium carbide for the lining of a scramjet engine but still…..

There’s an interesting point to this

The UK’s Serious Fraud Office has taken the unusual step of issuing an arrest warrant for the boss of a Kazakhstan-based mining company.

The SFO said that Benedikt Sobotka, chief executive of Eurasian Resources Group (ERG), failed to turn up for questioning in London last month, prompting it to take the “rare but necessary” action of issuing a warrant.

ERG is the successor company to ENRC, the miner that was listed on the London Stock Exchange between 2007 and 2013, before returning to private hands following a string of corruption allegations and boardroom battles over “Soviet”-style corporate governance.

So, let us say that Kazakh mining is corrupt. Just as a postulate you understand. Those who successfully invest there should make good profits then, yes? As good profits would only be normal profits, risk adjusted.

As compared to the normal story that making good mining profits in a corrupt place is evidence of ripping the government off.

Now replace Kazakh with DRC or Tanzanian. For that second argument is being made there, isn’t it?

No, Daily Mail, just no

He’s got metal! Man puts his BARE HAND straight through fiery molten ore and is left unscathed

Seriously:

Is this skill or madness? In this remarkable footage a foundry worker can be seen putting his hand straight through boiling hot molten metal.

That’s better. Metal, whether molten or not, and ore, are different things.

A useful analogy would be that the bloke eating a sandwich is eating flour. Well, yes,-ish. The bread is made from flour. Metal is made from ore. But it’s still not true that bread is flour, nor metal ore.

On the scandium business

World’s a small place, eh?

Piece of research, major breakthrough in solid state batteries.

Hmm, well, yes, major breakthroughs and all that. we’ve 98 of those to each product that actually gets made, on’t w?

But this one uses scandium to ad to the magnesium. Hmm, OK.

And the fun bit? Run by a bloke at Bath university. So, the odds that a major new Sc use come from the same town of perhaps 150,000 people as the world’s (used to be) major scandium trader?

Well, as we know, the odds are in fact 1. But what would you have predicted they would be? Without, obviously, any thought of it being me tearing around U Bath insisting people find some use for the stuff.

There’s a very simple answer to this

The London Metal Exchange is investigating whether cobalt mined by children is being traded in London after members raised concerns about a Chinese supplier.

The exchange is also surveying members to ask how they will guarantee “responsible sourcing”, which it says is part of a “broader push” that it was pursuing independently.

Amnesty International investigators have traced cobalt from small independent mines that use child labour in the Democratic Republic of Congo into electronic goods made by famous brands, via Chinese trading companies.

OK. No doubt that it happens as well. The question being, well, what do we do about it?

One answer is nothing.

Another is that we push out the blood minerals legislation to cobalt. That would be a very bad idea indeed. The system designed by the idiots currently costs 100 times what we were told it would.

So, is there a better system?

The LME said in an email to its members that it “would expect that any specific concerns will be addressed as part of our existing efforts”. A spokeswoman said: “We have strict guidelines and criteria for brands [producers] wishing to list their products on the LME. Any evidence of sub-standard practices that fall short of our requirements would be investigated by the LME and action would be taken.

Yes, there is. The LME doesn’t just trade a specific metal. The producer has to meet certain standards. And they really do go check the consistency and so on. Further, being and LME “brand” is something that is valuable. So, incorporate the industry smelter controls into the LME standard (the industry is, with those blood minerals, actually rather good at checking the origin of ore etc for the covered materials) and we’re done. We’ve got economics on our side. People using the child produced material will get a lower price. Users who are concerned about child labour can buy an LME brand knowing that they’re not eploiting.

We’re done aren’t we?

A fun example of why this economic planning is so damn hard

Palladium, a silvery metal used in catalytic converters for petrol cars, has become one of the star commodities of the year, hitting $1,000 an ounce for the first time since 2001.

The metal, mined primarily in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Russia, has risen 48pc this year, making it the best performing precious metal.

Palladium has added $70 an ounce in the last week alone, and rose 2pc in Monday morning trade in London to break the $1,000 mark.

Palladium’s strong run is linked to surging sales of petrol cars globally, in part because consumers are turning their backs on diesel vehicles.

A slew of negative publicity around diesel pollution, combined with wavering support from governments that had previously encouraged motorists to buy diesel, and the emissions data scandal that engulfed Volkswagen, has resulted in the fuel falling out of favour.

It’s not entirely cut and dried but Pt tends to be used in diesel catalysts, Pd in petrol. So, if the new car fleet is now to swing, in Europe at least, from diesel to petrol, which version of the wise and omniscient planner is going to delve down enough layers in the supply chain to tell the miners to adjust? Crack on with really optimising that extraction process for the Pd not the Pt (you do tend to be getting both from the same mineral flow)?

And another level, out into the scrap recycling chain. Catalysts are indeed collected and processed for their scrap. We want a change in prices at the collection end, to make sure that more attention is paid to those formerly less valuable petrol ones. The refiners of the catalyst material also need to be optimising their process for Pd not Pt recovery (the catalysts are processed together, for there are many mixed types as well). And from memory, although I’d not want to swear to it, the scrap feed back into the industry is somewhere between large and a majority of supply.

So let us imagine that planner, some Level III in the bowels of the Ministry of Metals. Then compare with markets that stimulate the lust for the gilt and pelf of profits, that near immediate, by comparison at least, dissemination of that information out through the economy.

Even to the silicon chip makers. Certain types will use Pd, Pt and even at times Nb to do something well beyond my ken. Each solve the problem but with varying success, the choice dependent upon two things, whether the problem really, really, needs to be solved perfectly or whether changing prices make any one of the three good enough. Without the price mechanism how does that information get to the chip designers and specifiers, that we need more Pd over here, not in chips?

Planning’s hard which is why we let markets take the strain.