COLUMN-Where there’s muck there’s brass … and critical minerals: Andy Home


By Andy Home

LONDON, July 26 (Reuters)Scandium sits within the shadows of the periodic desk. Even by the esoteric requirements of different critical minerals, the delicate, silvery steel with the atomic quantity 21 is one thing of an enigma.

The international market is considered someplace between 15 and 25 tonnes in measurement, however nobody may be very certain. Production is doubtlessly rather a lot increased. It’s tough to say, nevertheless, since a lot of it’s in China and manufacturing is all the time as a by-product of different metals.

Russia used scandium-aluminium alloys in its MIG fighter jets as early because the Eighties. It, too, has scandium manufacturing.

The United States, against this, has been wholly reliant on imports in recent times. It is typical of scandium’s opacity that the United States Geological Survey (USGS) says there may be “no definitive data” on suppliers.

Imports are “thought to be mostly from Europe, China, Japan and Russia”, the USGS says.

It’s not laborious to see why scandium is on the U.S. critical minerals checklist.

It seems, although, that Rio Tinto RIO.L has been producing scandium all alongside at its titanium operations over the Canadian border. But the steel now deemed critical was going with different waste right into a tailings pond.

The firm has now labored out find out how to extract scandium oxide from the titanium processing stream, making it North America’s sole producer.

Rio Tinto has simply carried out the identical trick for an additional critical mineral – tellurium – at its copper smelter in Utah.

Mine and processing waste is quick rising as a brand new frontier for critical metals provide.


Scandium, based on the Minor Metals Trade Association (MMTA), has lengthy been thought of an “if” steel. (“Scandium emerges from the shadows”, April 5, 2022)

If solely there have been sufficient provide, significantly Western provide, producers would have exploited its qualities as an alloying agent with aluminium.

Throw a tiny quantity of scandium into the aluminium soften and you get 10-15% weight discount, increased energy, larger flexibility and resistance to thermal shock.

All traits that make it good for high-performance plane or aerospace purposes.

However, for need of accessible provide, scandium-aluminium alloys have been confined to area of interest Western merchandise resembling baseball bats and lacrosse sticks.

Rio Tinto Fer et Titane will change that by ramping up its commercial-scale demonstration plant in Quebec to nameplate capability of three tonnes a yr, which can not sound a lot however is equal to a couple of fifth of world provide.

The venture took lower than two years from drafting board to business demonstration, wants no further mining and comes with a low carbon footprint.


Tellurium is one other critical mineral headache for the United States. Import reliance is greater than 95%, the USGS says.

China is the world’s dominant producer, extracting tellurium from metallic waste streams. Global manufacturing was solely 580 tonnes in 2021, based on Rio Tinto.

Lying on what the MMTA describes as “the boundary of metals and non-metals”, tellurium demand is unfold throughout a broad spectrum of specialist purposes.

However, its use through cadmium telluride in photo voltaic panels makes it an vital and fast-growing vitality transition steel.

First Solar FSLR.O, the biggest U.S. photovoltaic panel producer, will probably be a buyer of Rio Tinto’s Kennecott copper smelter-refinery in Utah.

The tellurium was beforehand a part of Kennecott’s anode slime waste stream, destined for remedy and long-term storage.

Now it is going to be transformed into copper-tellurium at a charge of 20 tonnes a yr earlier than being despatched to Canada’s 5N Plus VNP.TO for refining and onward provide to First Solar. 5N Plus may also use among the materials for ultra-high purity semiconductor supplies at its Utah facility.

Kennecott’s new tellurium circuit value solely $2.9 million and took lower than three years to construct after the native group began measuring sufficiently excessive concentrations within the copper ore in 2019.


Both these tasks are transformative, de-risking two of the United States’ critical mineral provide chains.

Neither requires an additional tonne of mined rock, obviating the necessity to have interaction in what is usually a tortuous planning and authorisation course of.

They are examples of a brand new business development in the direction of so known as whole-concept mining, often known as whole mining, broadening a historic deal with one or two main merchandise to doubtlessly every part of metallic worth within the ore being mined and processed.

“Kennecott’s tellurium plant is the latest example of work we’re doing globally to minimise waste by finding a use for every material we dig from the ground or creating new products from the waste itself,” Rio Tinto says.

Producers the world over are going again to their processing sheets to grasp higher what they’ve beforehand been throwing within the waste pond.

Russian aluminium producer Rusal RUAL.MM, as an illustration, has discovered its personal method of constructing scandium from the “red mud” waste generated within the alumina refining course of.

It launched its ScAlution vary of scandium alloys final yr, aspiring to seize a share of a market that would develop to 300,000 tonnes a yr by 2035 because of improved provide.

The subsequent huge waste-to-minerals problem is lithium, the steel that sits on the very coronary heart of the inexperienced vitality transition.

Rio Tinto is engaged on a venture to supply lithium from 90 years of waste accrued at its Boron mine web site in California and others are following the identical path, focusing on outdated coal-mining districts as a possible supply of lithium and different vitality transition metals resembling cobalt and manganese.

The USGS has been tasked with mapping and gathering information for areas containing mine waste “to increase understanding of above-ground critical mineral resources in previously disturbed areas”.

It’s not solely a extremely cost-effective method of closing the nation’s critical minerals gaps, but additionally a method of closing the green-on-green divisions that trigger each new vitality transition metals mine to run into fierce environmental opposition.

The inexperienced future, it seems, might be achieved a minimum of partly by cleansing up the mining legacy of the previous.

Andy Home is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his personal.

(Editing by David Goodman)

((, 44-207-542-4412 and on Twitter

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the creator and don’t essentially replicate these of Nasdaq, Inc.

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