Metals

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.

These people are insane

Afghanistan is the world’s largest unexploited reserves of copper, coal, cobalt, mercury, gold, and lithium, valued at US$1 trillion. Its rare-earth metals may be worth even more.

The place doesn’t have reserves. Because no one has done the work to prove they can be extracted at a profit. Which is the definition of a reserve.

The idea that the rare earths are worth – possibly – more than a trillion is just outright lunacy. Let’s value that concentrate at $20 a kg. Far more than reality – maybe 10x some time prices. OK. So, world currently uses 150k tonnes a year. So, we’ve a $3 billion a year market then (this is closer to the value of the refined market than the raw concentrate but hell, let’s give ’em a lot of room).

150,000 x 1,000 x $20 is $3 billion, right?

At which point we’re going to value deposits, in the ground, before mining let alone separation, at over a trillion $?

Sure, sure, growing market, turn the world green and it’s still fucking insane.

BTW, in 2009 concentrate was more like $2 a kg……it’s the separation that adds another $20 a kg to the costs. Separation costs obviously depress the value of concentrate……

Well, yes, you know, record concentrations

A geothermal energy company plans to extract lithium alongside power plants in Cornwall after finding record concentrations of the metal.

Geothermal Engineering said tests had found concentrations of lithium higher than 250mg per litre in waters deep underneath the county – higher than in geothermal waters anywhere else in the world.

What they’re doing is entirely sensible. Take the heat and power out of the hot water that is that free gift of nature. Cool!

Stick a filter on the system and extract the lithium. Should work. Lots of people trying it at least, the tech is out there to do it I think, why not?

and a conservative average lithium concentration in geothermal brine is 200 mg/L (McKibben and Hardie 1997)

Ah, not so much a record, certainly not far outside a conservative estimate.

For this report, technical
and economic data are reviewed from projects focused on lithium extraction from geothermal
and other brine types to assess the technologies being deployed and estimated costs to produce
end products lithium carbonate (Li2CO3) and lithium hydroxide monohydrate (LiOH·H2O). A
review of these projects indicates expected production costs (i.e., operating expenses or OPEX)
near $4,000/metric ton of lithium carbonate equivalent (LCE) and reported internal rates of
return suggest this production cost target is economically feasible with estimated prices of
≥$11,000/mt LCE. For comparison, market prices since mid-2018 have ranged from
approximately $20,000/mt to $7,500/mt LCE.

Still, should work.

Had to happen, eh?

But the reality, experts and workers say, is more complicated. Switching en masse to lab-made gems may have environmental upsides, and relieve companies of reputational risks. But it could disfranchise the same communities that consumers are concerned for – and it comes at a moment when traceable, ethically mined gems are more accessible than ever.

‘Something is wrong’
“If you start to grow diamonds in a lab, you’re not only taking away a job, but you’re also closing down communities and closing down countries,” says Urica Primus. “How will [miners] survive, how will they sustain themselves, their livelihoods, their families?”

Artisanal mining is terrible because it’s shitty work for little money. So, let’s stop it.

But, if we do stop it, then where will people be able to get their shitty work for little money?

Metalz is difficultz

Silicon is the crude oil of the Digital Age. Millions of metric tons are mined every year in China, Russia, Norway, the US and elsewhere, much of which is used in the $500 billion global market for semiconductors.

Not so much, no.

The majority of the world production which is done mainly in China and Russia (in 2014 about 7 million tonnes) is used as an alloy component for steel and aluminium, as well as a raw material for the production of silicones.

Only about 2% of the raw silicon is prepared for hyper-pure silicon as described in the following section,
of which approximately 90% is used for the manufacture of silicon solar cells. Some 100 tonnes a year
are ultimately used in the production of silicon wafers for the semiconductor sector, which this chapter is
devoted to.

That 100 tonnes looks a little low to me but then what do I know?

It’s still true that silicon production for semiconductors is the merest fraction of silicon production overall.

The rest of the piece is very good.

Not hugely so much in fact

Lithium and cobalt are nightmares to recycle and very toxic.

Where do these ideas come from?

Cobalt is recycled all the time. Get me a pile of scrap Co and I’ll have it sold by lunchtime. Even if you’re reading this at 11.45 am.

Lithium very toxic?

Sure, there’s something called lithium toxicity but this is about peeps who have a pharmaceutical dose that’s too high. It’s not about someone leaning up against a battery.

Sigh.

Bollocks matey

Jadarite, a mineral unique to the valley, contains lithium, a fundamental component in batteries, which is in increasing global demand thanks to the boom of the electric car industry. Experts believe that there could be as much as 200 million tonnes of lithium ore — a tenth of the world’s supply — in the land surrounding the town of Loznica, the region where Kokanovic farms.

“Could be” tells us that this isn’t a mineral reserve. This is, at best, a resource. And 200 million tonnes of ore grading 1.8% ain’t 10% of the world’s supply of anything.

It was originally estimated that there are 200 million tons of the lithium borate ore, which would make the future Jadar mines one of the world’s largest lithium deposits, supplying 10% of the world’s demand for lithium.[8]. Later on, United States Geological Survey concluded that lithium supply is closer to 1.51% of world’s demand for lithium.

Even that’s not right because it’s still mixing and matching definitions. If it all exists, if it’s all mined, and if other people don;t open up other mines, then it might be that single percentage point or two of global supply. And at 3.6 million tonnes of, so far, resources:

Owing to continuing exploration, identified lithium resources have increased substantially
worldwide and total about 86 million tons. Lithium resources in the United States—from continental brines,
geothermal brines, hectorite, oilfield brines, and pegmatites—are 7.9 million tons. Lithium resources in other countries
have been revised to 78 million tons. Lithium resources are Bolivia, 21 million tons; Argentina, 19.3 million tons; Chile,
9.6 million tons; Australia, 6.4 million tons; China, 5.1 million tons; Congo (Kinshasa), 3 million tons; Canada,
2.9 million tons; Germany, 2.7 million tons; Mexico, 1.7 million tons; Czechia, 1.3 million tons; Serbia, 1.2 million tons;
Peru, 880,000 tons; Mali, 700,000 tons; Zimbabwe, 500,000 tons; Brazil, 470,000 tons; Spain, 300,000 tons; Portugal,
270,000 tons; Ghana, 90,000 tons; and Austria, Finland, Kazakhstan, and Namibia, 50,000 tons each.

Or, that 1.2 million more conservative resource indicated there for Serbia.

All of that before we even begin to think about seawater content, something that people are claiming they can extract economically now…..

It’s a nice deposit there in Serbia. But it ain’t a mineral reserve – Rio Tinto hasn’t even designed the extraction technique yet, let alone defined the deposit – and as a resource it’s a nice little addition to global supplies but no more than that.

This is fun

No idea whether it actually works but fun all the same:

Despite mind-boggling technological change in almost every part of life over the past 100 years we still transmit electricity and electrical communications over copper wires. Tirupati says it has produced a new substance, a mixture of aluminium and a type of graphite called graphene, that can be used to make wires with superior technical qualities – qualities that will bring benefits such as increasing the capacity of airliners.

Hmm. well, OK. One thing here is that to make graphene you don’t have to start with graphite, although that’s an aid. It’s just carbon and can be made in other ways. Yes, OK, that’s like saying diamond is just carbon but then that’s also true, you can make diamond without the kimberlite and the volcano.

So, aluminium plus carbon beats copper for wiring does it? Ain’t that a fun story about substituitability? And makes some of those worries about running out of metals for the green revolution go away too.

That Cornish lithium

Yes, there is lithium in the geothermal waters in Cornwall. Yes, it can be extracted. Profitably? Well, that’s to be found out.

And then a little alarm bell:

“We would not be spending money if we didn’t think it was a very large opportunity,” says Wrathall. He says they have also found cesium, used in 5G networks, although the potential to exploit it remains unclear.

Well, yes, there’s cesium in there. The rock that lithium is being dissolved out of will contain it. However, thinking that you’re going to extract cesium is one of those well, hmm, do these people actually know what they’re talking about moments? And for 5G? Well, yes, atomic clocks, but the volume required is tiny.

The time to start heading for the hills is when they mutter about the closely allied rubidium. Yes, it’s $12 a gramme. Lovely stuff too. But with a global market of a couple of tonnes a year not something upon which mining companies are built…..

You what?

If he raises enough to satisfy the creditor demands of Credit Suisse, then Sanjeev Gupta will be left as the operator of Britain’s only electric arc furnaces and aluminium smelter.

Only electric arc? Nonsense.

It’s blast furnaces that are thin on the ground…..

So, this could have been written by me

It’s certainly familiar:

The first thing you need to know about rare earth metals, the 17 crucial elements that could shape our economic future, is that they’re actually not that rare. There is more cerium in the planet’s crust than there is copper or lead. Neodymium is more abundant than tin. There are rare earths in Wales, Scotland and the Pennines.

What makes these elements rare is not so much their scarcity but the fact that they are fiendishly difficult to process. Even when you find more concentrated grades, extracting them from their ores and turning them into something useful takes an extraordinary effort.

Well, except for the bit about extracting them from their ores – that’s trivially simple. Separating them one from the other now, yes, that’s tough. Where Ed Conway goes wrong though is:

Given what really matters with rare earths is not so much finding them in the ground as processing them, there is nothing to stop this country from becoming a leading producer. One Australian mining firm, Peak Resources, is hoping to extract rare earths from a mine in Tanzania before shipping them to a site in Teesside for processing.

No. Building a separation plant up on Teeside – using current technology that is – won’t work. Because it still doesn’t deal with that problem of being reliant on overseas supplies, does it? Nor with requiring long runs of homogeneous material. What we want is a new method of separating the rare earths, one from the other. So we can use short runs of material, wastes from other mining processes, domestic supplies if we wish – even, this would help massively with recycling efforts.

As it happens Teeside would be the best place in the world to do this too. All of which is an interesting test of the Mazzucato thesis. Government does the stuff that private industry won’t or can’t so all hail government. Except it doesn’t, does it?

I’d buy one for £10,000

A giant gold coin weighing 22lb (10kg) and worth £10,000 has been produced.

Lessee – 30 odd troy ounces to a kilo, 22 lbs is 10 kg (sorry, but these are the numbers that stick in the head) and $2,000 a troy ounce for gold. Roughly, between friends.

So that’s $600,000 for sale for £10,000. Send me a truck load.

The mint said the price of the £10,000 denomination gold version was available on application.

Ah, bugger.

Sheesh

Neodymium (Nd) is by far the most valuable RE metal by volume (few sellers).

Tons Per Year(tpy) vs Markup:

Global Iron Ore production 3.3 billion tonnes per year (tpy)
Global Steel Production 2.3 billion tpy

Conversion Markup: Oxide to Metal 200 to 500%

New Global Nd Oxide Production* ~ +30,000 tpy
New Global Nd Metal Production* ~ 25,000 tpy

Conversion Markup: Oxide to Metal ~ 10%
The chemical process of converting iron ore to steel and RE oxides to metal is exactly the same. Iron to steel tends to be large batch & mechanized, rare earths are produced in small batches, by hand (literally by hand)

Iron ore to steel is not the same as Nd oxide to Nd.

Iron ore to iron is the same reaction – extracting the oxygen even if it has to be done in a different way – but then you’ve got to get iron to steel by adding in carbon……

There’s an obvious answer here

If this really is essential that is:

ADS, an aerospace trade group, wrote to Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng last week to warn about the impact the failure of the speciality steel division would have on firms such as Rolls-Royce.

Kevin Craven, head of ADS, said: “ADS urges the UK Government to support the continuity of production at Liberty’s steelworks”, noting the Rotherham and Stocksbridge sites “produce most of the stock for aerospace”.

Rolls Royce and such should buy the firm.

Hmm, what’s that? It’s not that essential? Then it’s not essential, is it?

Another one of those math things

A magnificent tall tree called Pycnandra acuminata grows on the island of New Caledonia in the South Pacific, and it does something strange – when its bark is cut it bleeds a bright blue-green latex that contains up to 25% nickel, a metal highly poisonous to most plants in more than tiny amounts.

An estimated 700 plant species have unusually high levels of metal, mostly nickel but not in all cases. The macadamia tree has leaves and sap rich in manganese, although fortunately not in the nut. If such metal-containing plants are dried and burned to ash they yield extremely rich, high-grade metal ore, with far less pollution and using far less energy than needed in conventional mining. Perhaps this could offer new sources of much needed metals. It is highly unlikely they could fully replace traditional mining, although they can also help clean up soils contaminated with toxic metals.

Sigh.

The nickel must be in the soil in order for the tree to concentrate it. So, what’s going to provide the nickel we want, waiting a century for the tree to grow, harvest, then plant again for the next cycle to lift 1% or whatever of the soil’s nickel?

Or dig up the soil the tree is extracting from and extract directly?

And when you say you want 50,000 tonnes a year of Ni…….