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Radioactivity at the Olympic site


Last night Liberal Democrat Olympic spokesman Don Foster MP called on the Olympic Delivery Authority to reveal scientific proof that the site would be safe for future generations.

The soil was contaminated by several former industries, including plants which made luminous dials for military use. Thorium, a radioactive isotope with a half-life of more than 14 billion years, was used in making London’s gas street lights.

Hmm, so, that half life (which I haven\’t bothered to check btw, but it looks like around and about the age of the Universe) shows, by definition, that it isn\’t very radioactive.

Just as an example of how not radioactive thorium is you could have a lump of a few pounds sitting on your desk and you wear a radiation detector (one of the film ones, not a Geiger Counter) and over the course of a year you wouldn\’t fog the film at all.

Yes, it was used in making gas street lights: to make the mantle. It was also used in all of those Calor Gas and the like camping lights. So anyone who went camping before the 80s (when use was gradually phased out) should be dead now of course.

Radium, used in the manufacture of luminous dials, decays into radon which can seep into the atmosphere, into water and into homes.

That is a slightly more valid worry, radon can indeed build up in homes and can and does kill people. However, we know how to deal with this, just ventilate the house properly. The odious Don Foster (my local MP for whatever sins I\’ve committed) only needs to travel some 10 miles outside his own constituency to the Mendips to see people who face much higher radon concentrations than anything which is likely to occur in London.

Or to Cornwall: or is Donny Baby insisting that London be safer than an entire county in the SW of England?

Electronic scrap recycling

Organised crime has moved into the recycling industry – a development that has become clear over the past few months after a series of raids to enforce the EU\’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive .

In a raid at the start of June, police and officials from the Environment Agency targeted two east London locations – a farm at Upminster and an industrial site at Rainham – and forced open around 500 containers full of old computers, monitors, fridges and assorted electrical waste destined for illegal export to Africa, where it would be stripped down for raw materials.

Yup, lots of electronic scrap is exported to Africa and Asia where little kiddies poison themselves by smelting the metals over open fires.

No, we don\’t want this to happen.

But why is it happening? Would you believe me if I told you it was the very regulations themselves that we have about the recycling of such scrap? You should believe me, of course, given that I\’ve some experience of the scrap metal trade, having, over the years, bought and recycled offcuts from nuclear power plants, jet engines, old coins and yes, even electronic scrap.

The thing is, you see, that a pile of old electronics is a pile of money. Sure, there\’s a little hand separating that can be usefully done, get the glass out of it, perhaps the aluminium (PC cases) and the plastic. Then stick the rest of it into a furnace. You need a nice hot one, to make sure that cable plastic etc doesn\’t create dioxins, but other than that you\’re fine. You end up with a nice amalgam of gold, tin, lead and copper and we\’ve got long established systems that will separate these out for reuse. There\’s a nice copper scrap processor in Spain that does this on a regular basis for example.

There are also other ways: a little more separating by hand and you can take the solder and gold off the boards, electrolytically refine it to take out the gold and you\’ve a solder (which, before we banned lead in solder) could be sold back to PC board manufacturers at a 10% premium to virgin solder, it being purer you see. You can then chop up the boards themselves, extract the copper through water flotation tanks and the plastics and resins can be used to make rather nice and highly insulating bricks.

There are other methods as well: feed the whole lot into massive choppers and separate again by water flotation.

However, doing any of these in the EU comes up against two problems. One is that at some point you\’re going to need to use a furnace. And there will be slag from such. And the rules about what you can do with that slag mean that\’s expensive.

However, what really makes this sort of thing expensive is the rules about lead. The glass in a TV or monitor is 25% lead oxide (yes, glass is metal oxide for those who didn\’t know. Different glasses are made of different metals, silicon as the base for them, but others added. The lead stops your brain from frying in this case. Car windshlidis might have a lot of cerium in them, camera lenses lanthanum and so on.)

Now there\’s pretty much bugger all you can do with this lead oxide flavoured glass. Certainly, recycling it back into TV screens is grossly expensive, hugely so. It\’s better for all that it get dumped in a hole in the ground. And no, lead does not leach out of the glass: glass is perhaps the most stable substance we know of.

In the end, we know how to process out the metallic lead from these systems profitably, as long as we can dump the lead contained in glass. But the rules about what you\’re allowed to dump make it hugely expensive to do precisely this.

So, it becomes cheaper to ship the stuff to where the reprocessing kills people because the rules don\’t allow us to do it sensibly here.

This is the old saw, the perfect is the enemy of the possible. By trying to insist that electronic scrap is really recycled, rather than 95% of it being profitably recycled with a 5% landfill element, we\’ve created a system whereby only one third is recycled in any sensible manner, the rest burnt over open fires by Third World children. Which kills them.

If we really wanted a sensible electronics recycling system we would relax the rules a little here and this would make it more profitable to recycle here rather than export. Thus the recycling would take place here.

But we can\’t do that because the European Union says we cannot.

Then again, as we keep being told, it is essential that we remain in the EU because we must all band together to protect the environment, mustn\’t we?


Erm, really?

Industrial demand for silver, including from the photography industry, is reckoned to be about 65 per cent of total global supplies estimated at 895 tonnes. For gold industrial and dental demand the figure is about 11 per cent of supplies estimated at around 3,880 tonnes, according to consultants GFMS.

OK, I realise, this is a Reuters staff report, not directly from The Telegraph.

But someone is seriously suggesting that global gold output is a multiple of global silver output?

Jeepers, someone capable of that shouldn´t be allowed near a typewriter let alone a financial reporting wire.

The gold number looks roughly right (although it´s important to understand that virgin production is a tiny part of the global gold and or silver market….recycling plus stock is many many times larger) but the silver one?

Total silver mine production reached 670.6 Moz

670 million ounces, divide by 1,000 and divide by 32 (very roughly, 32 troy ounces to a kilo, then 1,000 kg to a tonne) and I´m getting around 20,000 tonnes of silver a year.

Do people actually get paid to make these sorts of mistakes? The sorts of mistake that would be immediately spotted by anyone with even a passing knowledge of the industry?

For gold bugs

Now does anyone really believe that the store of gold in vaults is worth over 2% of all tangible assets everywhere?  Seriously? 


I know the gold bugs will hate this idea – because it harks back to the argument against gold – which is that it has no intrinsic value.

Kill the heretic, kill the heretic!

Me? I\’m in the mining business (ish….very much ish, ish). He\’s right.


A jeweller has been ordered by his local council to hand over gold dust swept up from his workshop floor so that it can be taken to a tip.

John Doble, 50, who runs businesses in Torquay and Brixham, collects tiny gold particles from the floor and benches of his workshop and sells them to a specialist dealer for about £2,000 a year.

Torbay Council has ruled that the gold dust is commercial waste and has asked him to prove that he disposes of it properly. Mr Doble says that the authority refuses to believe that he is not putting it into his dustbin.

The metals business, and the precious metals business in particular, recycles more of its production than any other industry on earth.

Tehre are markets (gallium for example, rhenium, plus those precious metals) where recycled material forms the majority by far of the annual marketplace, hugely greater than the virgin material newly extracted.

That we\’ve got some ignorant jobsworth questioning the practices of this, the most efficient (in this sense of preserving virgin resources) industry doesn\’t surprise me but it does amuse me.

Rouble devaluation

Looks like as rouble devaluation might be coming.

Russia\’s central bank has raised interest rates a full percentage point to 12pc to prevent a collapse of the rouble following a day of mayhem on the Moscow markets, prompting concerns that the financial crisis may be spiralling out of control.

When the rouble was soaring as a petro-currency my suppliers insisted that this meant I had to pay a higher price in $ to help cover their costs. Fair enough actually. It\’s just that if there is a devaluation, I don\’t see them offering to lower their prices.

Funny that, ain\’t it?

Radioactive scrap

This is one of the bugbears, the banes of the scrap metal industry.

The French nuclear safety agency said the buttons contained traces of radioactive Cobalt 60. Four Indian firms produced the components, an Indian official said, but it was still unclear where the contaminated scrap originated – although metal had been traced to a foundry in the western state of Maharashtra.

Malafec brought the button from two Indian companies. They in turn purchased the raw materials from another company SKM Steels – which obtained it from a foundry near Khopoli on the way to Pune from Mumbai called Vipras. Vipras is believed to melted the scrap to get steel.

"We are tracking back the whole chain," Satya Pal Agarwal, head of the radiological safety division of India\’s Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, told AFP.
Indian foundries are not required to install radiation detectors to check scrap, but the government has a programme to put radiation monitors at ports to check cargo.

Because the metals industry recycles more than any other industry does, there\’s always a fear that something nasty will get into the process. If it does, then it spreads throughout the whole system, as here. Every scrap furnace in the western countries does indeed check incoming material for radiation.

For example, it\’s not just those lift buttons that are now radioactive. So is the entire furnace that was used to smelt the steel. That has now all become radioactive waste that must be safely disposed of. A nightmare for the firm that did it and the reason that all the smelters have those geiger counters (although obviously, not in India).

One point to note though. This is nothing to do with nuclear power. Co-60 is used in both the irradiation of food and in certain cancer treatments. You don\’t extract it from power reactors, you deliberately make it in isotope reactors.

And it\’s also very powerful stuff: I feel very sorry for the poor sod that put it into the furnace, he won\’t be feeling very well at all.

Points for the first spotting of some greenie getting this wrong.


Bribing the locals

Depends what you call it really.

Research by the British charity CAFOD claims that some community leaders in Macambol, on the southern island of Mindanao, were bribed up to £12,000 – thirty-two times a typical annual salary – to approve the scheme.

Reads differently if you call it compensation funnelled through the community leaders, doesn\’t it?

Still, the bit that interested me was this:

The mine will use a new method of extracting the nickel using hot sulphuric acid.

Called, I think, heat leaching. Been tried out in Australia a few times. Depends upon what exactly the ore is but when the process has been used in Oz a possible byproduct has been….scandium!


So much for that commodity super cycle then, eh?

Rio Tinto sent a shock wave through the mining sector and triggered wider concerns about a global recession yesterday by warning of a major slowdown in China.

The company said it was revising its capital spending plans and would miss its end-of-year target of making $10bn (£5.65bn) worth of disposals.

Shares in Rio Tinto fell more than 16% and other mining stocks lost as much as 26% after the company said it was cutting production at some of its aluminium smelters. The move came as the Aluminium Corporation of China (Chalco) decided to reduce its Chinese output in response to a 40% slide in local prices over the past couple of months.

The commodity super cycle

I was never really a fan of the thought that this time it was all going to be different, that commodities had reached a high plateau and that the boom abd bust so traditional in their pricing was now over.

The Goldman Sachs Commodity Index has tumbled a third since May. Chartists say it is now perched precariously on its seven-year line, threatening to challenge the “supercycle” thesis that became so fashionable at the top of the bubble.

Who knows, I might even have been right in thinking that way.

Depleted Uranium

So three blokes in China have been found smuggling depleted uranium.

The scrap merchants, two brothers and a friend, found the lump of low-radiation uranium metal in a yard in Bishkek last year. Attracted by its shiny surface and its “gold sparkle”, they haggled the dealer down to a price of $US2,000 for what both sides regarded as a treasure – but neither could identify.

Quite a piece of it too….600 lbs odd.

A long time since I had a market price for this stuff but they got a bargain there I think. $9 a lb is (from an all too infallible memory) about the right price so there was a few thousand $ in profit for them….if only they knew where to sell it of course.

Andrew Roberts

Writing about spies and Stalin\’s bomb program:

But the knowledge that the Soviets, relying on their Siberian uranium and plutonium deposits, could theoretically build an unlimited number of H (hydrogen) bombs and A (atomic) bombs, meant that such international brinkmanship would henceforth always herald the possibility of global Armageddon.

Now that is new information. Siberian plutonium deposits, eh? And there was I thinking that plutonium was a man made element, created in reactor piles by the use of Uranium in them.

That\’s certainly the way we Brits and the USians got their plutonium so the Soviets really were very lucky to have it just lying around, weren\’t they?

Not quite, not quite.

In all of the Soviet Union\’s existence, where research was considered a priority, not one discovery was made that scientists in the free world considered worth using.

A couple in metallurgy: the use of scandium in aluminium alloys for example.

An extremely poor return on the money and effort put in, I agree, but "not one" is too extreme.

Update: I\’m told by Pollard himself (ooooh, look at him, swank, swank) that the subs left out the word "pharmacology" which would have made his point a great deal more supportable.


Invest in Aluminium?

Here\’s the pitch. Energy prices are way up, the bulk of the cost of aluminium is energy in production, so shouldn\’t aluminium rise in price?

We were all rocked by the news that British Gas had imposed a whopping 35 per cent increase on energy bills – and its rivals will undoubtedly follow suit in the coming weeks. This is a huge blow to households already wilting under higher mortgage costs, higher food costs and higher petrol prices. An aluminium exchange traded fund, which tracks an aluminium index, could be a route to profiting from the sky-high energy costs.

The manufacture of aluminium uses immense amounts of energy: it takes 15,000kWh to make a tonne of aluminium, compared with 67kWh for lead. Again, supply is constrained yet the metal is used by the automobile industry and in consumer durables, mobile phones, LCD televisions, MP3 players, cans and foil. Again, experts argue that the growth of China will fuel the demand, which they reckon will outstrip that for any other metal.

Well, mebbe. Except the aluminium companies know the energy cost of Al of course. So the plants are deliberately put in places where there\’s lots of cheap energy. Indeed, lots of energy that cannot be used in other ways. Like hydro projects in the wilds of Quebec, or Iceland for example.

Sure, there\’s some effect (it\’s been known in times of high energy prices on the West Coast for Al companies to turn off their pots and make more money selling the electricity they buy on long term fixed price contracts from hydro plants than bothering to use it to make Al) but a great deal of the industry relies upon power that can\’t be used any other way. Deliberately so. Indeed, many dams have been built specifically to feed Al plants….rather than build the dam and then set up hundreds of miles of high voltage cable to export the leccie (with all the associated transmission losses) it\’s cheaper by far to import the alumina and export the Al and the electricity embedded into it.

This doesn\’t mean that Al won\’t rise in price….just that it\’s not a bet that I would take on this basis.


That Quantas Plane

So a piece falls off and there\’s an explosive decompression.There\’s one extremely odd thing that could have caused this. Indeed, I\’ve heard (anecdotally) that it has actually happened in the past, on a Russian transport plane.

Now, no, I\’m not suggesting that this is what happened at all: it\’s just an opportunity to tell a little story from the world of weird metals.

Gallium. A low melting temperature (29 oC or so) means that in summer in the hold of a plane in certain parts of the world it will become liquid. The problem is that when liquid gallium meets the Al alloys that make up planes a hole appears in the Al.

As I say, I\’ve been told that this actually happened once in Russia, badly packed Ga leaked out, ate a hole in the plane\’s floor and left part of it sitting rather sadly on the tarmac while the rest of the plane taxied away.


Well Sorta Like

A small point:

The explanation lies in a deal struck in 2005 whereby Mr Mugabe handed over to China his country\’s mineral rights, including the world\’s second largest reserves of platinum, worth £250 billion.

It\’s sorta right and sorta very wrong indeed.

To get to something like that figure you have to use the gross value of all the metal if it were mined…..but then apply that valuation to the metal as it lies still in hte ground.

There are a couple of comparisons to this method of valuation. One is the police when they intercept some drugs. They always take a high end valuation of street prices (say, £50 a gramme or whatever) and then multiply that up to tonnage weights. Even when the stuff they\’ve caught is actually on a boat in the Caribbean, not in eighths in Bermondsey. They\’re ignoring the point that drugs change in value dependent upon location (most especially which side of a border they are….which is really rather why people smuggle them) and all the other things, packaging, quantity etc.

The second is the way in which firms wail about the cost of counterfeiting. The biggest whiners are the software industry….$squiddley billions are lost each year by Chinese copies and so on. They value each copied licence at full retail. When it\’s blindingly obvious that not everyone who has a 50 cents knock off would be willing to pay $400 for a legitimate copy. At least, if the economists are correct about demand curves sloping downwards they\’re not (umm, while we might indeed regard Microsoft software as an inferior good, we wouldn\’t regard it as a Giffen Good).

This valuation of the metals resources above is wrong in the same way. The impression given is that there\’s £250 billion in profit to be had…..which really ain\’t the case. That\’s the value being assigned to the total possible production, when produced….without subtracting the costs of doing the producing.

Think of it this way….I\’ll bet you that the tin in Cornwall is worth $5 billion. So why is no bugger mining it? Because it\’ll cost more than $5 billion to get it out of the rock.

Perhaps when this blogs\’ mining engineer correspondent returns he\’d like to elucidate further?

It\’s not that the £250 billion figure is wrong so much as it\’s terribly, terribly misleading.

George Today

Actually, he\’s quite fun today. Airships. Sure, I\’ll get behind that, however, one teenise technical detail he\’s missed:

A new generation of solar panels relies on gallium and indium, whose global supplies appear close to exhaustion.

Erm, no. Not even close. Both are extracted as by products from other mining processes. Both require only the addition of a capture circuit to those existent processes. We most certainly don\’t have capture circuits on all of the plants that could support them.

Now these are rough numbers, pulled from memery. But there are some 35 Bayer Process plants around the workd. These are the plants that take in Bauxite and spit out Alumina (aluminium oxide). Gallium can be captured from this process: but, while I\’m not certain of the number, I\’m almost certain that less than ten of the plants have such capture circuits.

There\’s also all of the red mud (the waste from this process) of the past 50 years or so of the global aluminium business lying around in ponds that can be processed to extract gallium should anyone want to do so.

And no, no one at all goes mining for Gallium (or indeed Indium) so to claim that supplies are near exhaustion is, umm, a little odd.

Update. This file.  Global reserves of gallium are some 1 million tonnes. Global production is around 100 tonnes.

Meaning that we\’ve got some 10,000 years\’ supply  just in the rocks we know about.

Close to exhaustion that ain\’t.

A New Element

You know, this makes so much damn sense it\’s amazing that no one thought of doing this before.

If we think (as many do) that the actinides and  above become stable near or around element 120, then instead of sweating buckets trying to make them, why not go and look and see if there are traces of those stable elements out there?

Et Voila!

We find them.

Simple ideas, eh?

Thallium Poisoning

A slightly odd report in The Guardian about a case of thallium poisoning in Iraq.

Thallium is a highly toxic soft radioactive metal that was once widely used in rat poisons and insecticides.

It ain\’t, I\’m afraid, radioactive. There may or may not be radioactive isotopes (I\’ve not bothered to look that up) but the commercial material itself is not radioactive.

There\’s also one other thing about this. The individuals may well have been poisoned by thallium. But not, perhaps poisoned by thallium, if you get my rather odd meaning.

"This is a disturbing incident," said Mohammed Abbas, a police official. "The use of thallium in this way appears to show that someone in Adhamiya is reviving the techniques of the mukhabarat [the Saddam-era secret police].

"What happens if al-Qaida gets the know-how? We are urgently trying to discover how much thallium is out there and who would know how to utilise it."

This information is a little out of date but certainly there was (perhaps still is) a thallium based cockroach poison. And yes, it was (perhaps is) popular in the Middle East. So while it is indeed thallium poisoning, the cure for which is Prussian Blue, from the point of view of the poisoner it\’s not so much that, it\’s adding cockroach "chalk" (that\’s the form the insecticide comes in) to the food. It\’s not a matter of "know how" really.

AE Bullion

American Elements has launched something called AE Bullion. This post should be considered as a warning not to actually buy any of their products.

Los Angeles based American Elements announced today the launch of AE Bullion™. The new product group will mint certified high purity coins and bars from approximately sixty advanced, rare and less common metals for short and long term physical investment. Metals include rhodium, tellurium, indium, hafnium, scandium and the 14 rare earth elements; all metals which have experienced dramatic world price increases in 2007.

Coins and bars will be minted from assayed materials produced by American Elements\’ AE Metals™ high purity refining group. Coins will be available to hedge funds, currency reserves and exchange traded funds (ETFs) in order to establish tradable securities and to allow for exposure and controlled risk to commodity and industrial demand fluctuations. Also, private investors, collectors and hobbyists can now take direct physical title and possession to these metals with risk exposure equivalent to movements in the world spot price.

Portfolios of different elemental metal coins and bars may also be structured allowing for strategic risk allocation and indexing across a basket of metals. American Elements will offer bonded short and long term warehouse inventory services for AE Bullion™ coins to investors, funds and collectors who do not wish to take physical custody of the metal or lack secure storage or warehouse capabilities.

This is a terrible idea, seriously awful, from the investors point of view. The first and most important point is that these metals don\’t have liquid markets. Taking scandium for example: as regular readers will know I make my day job living dealing in the material. But in over a decade I\’ve never actually sold the metal itself to anyone. The oxide, yes, the oxide when made into a aluminium master alloy, yes, but not the metal. I would be astonished if the global market in 2007 was more than 1 kg of the metal in total. The same goes fo many of the rare earth metals (some do indeed have markets, others, ytterbium etc, not. I once had a piece of lutetium and the only thing I could manage to do with it was sell it to someone who prepared elements for collectors.). Further, even where there are markets fo them, no one ever buys them piecemeal. Long term supplpier contracts are the order of the day. Hafnium as coins and bars also strikes me as rather silly: a typical Hf metal purchase would be 500 kg to 5,000 kg. Piddling about with an ounce or two in a coin simply won\’t happen.

Rhodium is something that might be worth speculating in but there\’s already a mechanism to do that. Open an account at Johnson Matthey and get on with it.

This has overtones (and no, I\’m not making an accusation here of it being the same) of a program that went on a decade ago, with indium and germanium. An investment boiler house was selling these "vital electronic metals in short supply" by the ounce to impressionable retail investors in the US. They were paying $ hundreds an ounce to take physical possession of material worth, at that time, $10s per ounce. Usual hard core telephone sales techniques.

Prices did indeed rise but not enough to cover the marketing mark up: and anyway, with these metals it\’s an industrial market. Buyers are the big electronics companies and they pick up a tonne or two at a time.

The basic point is that these metals are really not for the private investor as there are no liquid markets. And even when there are, they\’re not in the sort of quantities that a private investor would be dealing in. With the exception of rhodium (where, as noted, there is already a mechanism) this just isn\’t a sensible place to go speculating.

Disclaimer: yes, I do deal, or have done, in several of these metals. Yes, I would benefit if a private market was created to speculate in them. Yes, I still think it\’s an extremely bad idea that you shouldn\’t go anywhere near.

There was in fact a scandium metals futures market in Moscow in the early-mid 1990s. It collapsed after about 50 trades as there was no terminal market. This idea will face very much the same problems.