by Greg Klein | March 9, 2017
With an eye to national defence, American lawmakers will decide whether their government should help develop domestic supplies of rare minerals. A Congressional bill introduced March 7, Rep. Duncan Hunter’s proposed METALS Act (Materials Essential to American Leadership and Security) would offer a number of inducements to create supply lines for strategic and critical commodities.
“The U.S. must no longer be wholly dependent on foreign sources of strategic and critical materials,” said Hunter, a veteran of two combat tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. “The risk of this dependence on national security is too great and it urgently demands that we re-establish our depleted domestic industrial base.”
Pointing to China’s lockhold on over 90% of global rare earths supply, Hunter argued the U.S. has “ceded” its ability to produce REEs. Following the bankruptcy of the last U.S. rare earths miner, Molycorp “sold a portion of its assets to the Chinese,” said a statement from Hunter’s office. “The mine is now being considered for purchase by a firm with ties to a Russian billionaire.”
As reported by the Wall Street Journal last month, a group including Vladimir Iorich’s Pala Investments has offered US$40 million for Molycorp’s former Mountain Pass mine in California. The METALS Act would prohibit foreign acquisition of American rare earths deposits.
It would also provide five-year interest-free loans for new production or manufacturing techniques involving strategic or critical minerals. Additionally, Washington would reimburse defence programs for higher costs of domestic products. Funding would divert 1% of Department of Defense administration spending, Hunter said.
The act would also bar foreign interests from sourcing American supplies of ammonium perchlorate, a propellant for rockets and missiles. The bill further calls for a study on the viability of using thorium-fuelled nuclear reactors in naval vessels.
Besides encouraging supply chains essential to national security, the bill “supports the U.S. domestic industrial base by aiding domestic investment opportunities,” according to Hunter’s office.
Speaking with ResourceClips.com last month, David S. Abraham expressed skepticism about Hunter’s proposal. “Most bills on critical materials have not passed and his bills usually have the least chance of passing…” said the author of The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age. “That’s not to say the U.S. hasn’t given money to metallurgy and mining before, but with the exception of some dabbling in beryllium in the ’90s, I can’t recall a time where the U.S. was really investing in mines from a defence perspective.”
But Washington defence lobbyist Jeff Green told ResourceClips.com of “a totally different dynamic” in circles of power that would be willing to “invest in America to protect our national security and grow our manufacturing base.”
A January report from the U.S. Geological Survey stated the country was wholly dependent on foreign sources for 20 minerals last year, some of them considered critical or strategic “because they are essential to the economy and their supply may be disrupted.”
As of press time Hunter’s office hadn’t responded to an interview request.
by Greg Klein
Something of an epiphany came to him in 2010 as he watched the aftermath of a minor incident in internationally disputed waters. China’s shock-and-awe response turned its near-monopoly on rare earths into a mighty geopolitical weapon, exposing the perilous nature of our dependence on seemingly obscure commodities. That inspired David S. Abraham’s 2015 book The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age. Now, as a similar confrontation threatens to flare up again, he sees the West still unprepared for further attacks on vital supply lines.
Asked whether people in power have at least gained greater awareness, his response is a firm No.
Speaking on the phone from Indonesia, Abraham took time to discuss the issue with ResourceClips.com. The 2010 event, of course, began with the China-Japan territorial dispute in the East China Sea. Late last year American warships entered the South China Sea, in another challenge to China’s claim to sovereignty. Yet compared with previous years, “I think we’re even more vulnerable to shock in our supply lines,” he says.
“If you look at rare earths, in 2010 there were opportunities for new supplies to come onstream quite quickly, and they’ve since failed. People look at that failure and say these places couldn’t compete, they couldn’t produce economically, so they failed.”
China, having pushed up prices exponentially by withholding rare earths, swung to the other extreme and flooded the market. That dashed the hopes of many potential non-Chinese producers yet encouraged complacency among end-users. “But the supply lines themselves really look no different than they did back then,” Abraham cautions.
Of course the problem’s hardly limited to rare earths. Just one example Abraham points to is cobalt and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Estimates of DRC supply range from 51% of the world total (2015 figures from the U.S. Geological Survey), to nearly 60% (Benchmark Mineral Intelligence), to 65% (Disruptive Discoveries Journal). That gives a disproportionate amount of supply not only to a single country, but one plagued with political instability and conflict mining.
Troubling too is the ownership.
Already a major player in the country, China stands to increase its DRC position should China Molybdenum and a Chinese private equity firm succeed in their $3.8-billion purchase of a majority interest in Tenke Fungurume, one of the world’s biggest copper-cobalt mines. With a 20% stake, the DRC state-owned company Gécamines has tried to block the sale but reportedly accepted a $100-million settlement.
What you see China doing is really consolidating up the supply line…. What they’re trying to do is build up their material capacity so other people producing batteries have to use material coming through China.—David S. Abraham
“What you see China doing is really consolidating up the supply line…. What they’re trying to do is build up their material capacity so other people producing batteries have to use material coming through China.”
The country fosters economic growth by “adding to the value chain that they can produce in their own country. It’s a strong economic argument. It’s not dissimilar to what Trump says, but he hasn’t really gone into the deep thinking that’s happening in China.”
Certainly, China’s strategic approach contrasts with the West. That’s suggested by the example of Tenke Fungurume’s would-be vendors, the American/Canadian team of Freeport-McMoRan NYSE:FCX and Lundin Mining TSX:LUN.
“For those companies, it’s about profits,” Abraham acknowledges. “The question is, what are the technology companies thinking about? Companies like Apple are trying to do a better job of understanding where their materials come from, but some of the others are less concerned.”
With the U.S. military in mind, Rep. Duncan Hunter is anticipated to propose a congressional bill that would help develop domestic supplies of rare minerals.
Abraham’s skeptical. “Most bills on critical materials have not passed and his bills usually have the least chance of passing…. That’s not to say the U.S. hasn’t given money to metallurgy and mining before, but with the exception of some dabbling in beryllium in the ’90s, I can’t recall a time where the U.S. was really investing in mines from a defence perspective.”
If decision-makers lack awareness, they’re not alone, he believes. Abraham sees little evidence that consumers understand the issues. “People talk about being concerned about where these materials come from but they really have to understand the challenging supply lines, and that’s what the book was trying to introduce people to,” he says. “It’s still a little too complex to fathom and I don’t think people think beyond ‘my phone causes conflict in Congo’ and get to the point that ‘my phone leads to geopolitical war.’”
If so, that makes The Elements of Power as timely now as it was in 2015. A paperback edition comes out in April.
In concluding the phone call, Abraham offers a maxim: “Nothing changes very fast. Then everything changes all of a sudden.”
The Chart of the Week is a Friday feature from Visual Capitalist.
Tesla’s Gigafactory 1 has been a centre of attention for people interested in the growing momentum behind green energy, electric cars and battery production. Therefore, it is no surprise that this facility was in the news again last month, with Tesla starting to mass-produce batteries as it ramps up to its goal of 35 GWh of capacity and beyond.
However, as exciting as this project is, it’s actually just one of multiple large-scale “megafactories” being built—with many of them being in China.
China leading the charge
We talked to Simon Moores, managing director at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, who explained that Tesla isn’t alone or unique in its ambitions to build lithium-ion batteries at scale:
While the Tesla Gigafactory is vitally important from an EV vertical integration perspective, the majority of new lithium-ion battery capacity is being built in China. Some of these plants are expected to be huge, such as the CATL facility at 50 GWh—there is little doubt that China’s lithium-ion industry has come of age.
Contemporary Amperex Technology Ltd (CATL) has plans to build the largest lithium-ion megafactory of all—but the company is little known in North America. It’s already worth $11.5 billion and could be a dominant force globally in the battery sector if it successfully increases its lithium-ion production capacity six-fold to 50 GWh by the year 2020.
Other Chinese manufacturers are on a similar trajectory. Panasonic, LG Chem and Boston Power are building new megafactory plants in China, while companies such as Samsung and BYD are expanding existing ones. Lithium-ion plants in China currently have a total capacity of 16.4 GWh—but by 2020, they will combine for a total of 107.5 GWh.
Capacity by country
This ramp-up in China means that the country will have 62% of the world’s lithium-ion battery production capacity by 2020.
There are only three other players in the megafactory game: United States, South Korea and Poland.
|2016 capacity (GWh)||2020 capacity (GWh)||% of global total (2020)|
Above estimates on battery capacity courtesy of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.
Posted with permission of Visual Capitalist.
by Greg Klein
The timing seems ominous. As rival American and Chinese warships assert themselves in the disputed South China Sea, the United States Geological Survey reported 20 minerals on which the U.S. imports all of its supply. Included are rare earths—coming almost entirely from China, of course. It was a 2010 conflict in the same troubled waters between Japan and China that caused the latter country to cut off rare earths exports to its adversary. As other supply chains broke apart, REE prices went on an exponential tear. Might China do that again and, this time, are American decision-makers sufficiently concerned?
They should be, say some observers. Additionally, there also looms the possibility of a trade war sparked by U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods. Yet some REEs are necessary not only for consumer electronics and clean energy, but also for military defence.
The 20 entirely foreign-dependent minerals reported by the USGS represent an increase from 19 the previous year and 11 in 1984. The list includes rare earths, scandium and yttrium as three separate categories. In February 2016 Industrial Minerals reported that the U.S. Department of Defense “identified 15 of the 17 rare earths as critical over the last five years.”
Having foreseen as far back as 2009 the possibility of China using REEs as a geopolitical strategy, Jeff Green watches the topic from a defence perspective. “I think about the tools China has to retaliate and rare earths come right to the top of the list,” he says.
Green has recently served on the U.S. House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness. He’s a lawyer, a member of the U.S. Magnetic Materials Association and the REE World Advisory Board, a U.S. Air Force Reserve colonel and a former USAF missile combat crew commander. He describes his Washington firm J.A. Green & Company as “primarily a defence lobbying company that’s really interested in the nexus between national resource security and national security.”
He finds the U.S. government’s concern stronger and better informed than previously. That contrasts with events leading to what he calls the “Molycorp fiasco,” a supposed market solution to the 2010 shock and a strategy that he warned against. It went on to “burn the market to the tune of one and a half billion dollars.”
The result? “Today we’re probably in a more dire China-dependent situation than ever before.”
But Green sees hope in a Congressional bill that he anticipates being introduced within a week or so. Rep. Duncan Hunter’s proposal would help American companies develop domestic supplies of REEs and other minerals critical to defence. Assistance could come in the form of no-interest loans, Green says. Additionally the Department of Defense might pay more for American products made from American commodities, with the government reimbursing the difference between domestic and Chinese costs until American companies can compete.
It’s not a pure free market economic philosophy but one that will say: ‘If we’ve got a critical supply risk and we’ve got domestic companies that can fill that gap, then let’s invest in America to protect our national security and grow our manufacturing base.’—Jeff Green
As for the bill’s chances of success, Green’s optimistic. “You’ve got an administration that is very pro Buy American, Hire American. You’ve got a Congress that very much supports manufacturing. It will be much more pro-mining, pro-industry than we’ve seen. It’s not a pure free market economic philosophy but one that will say: ‘If we’ve got a critical supply risk and we’ve got domestic companies that can fill that gap, then let’s invest in America to protect our national security and grow our manufacturing base.’
“It’s a totally different dynamic than Washington’s seen in 40 years.”
Chris Berry agrees about the need for subsidies, among other assistance. In a research report last year the president of House Mountain Partners and editor of the Disruptive Discoveries Journal warned of the cost of not creating a supply chain outside China. In an e-mail to ResourceClips.com he notes that the “mine permitting, exploration and building process would all need to be expedited through legislation and through subsidies. This is the only way I see non-Chinese deposits being able to compete with China’s RE production costs. The good news is that as various technologies grow in importance (such as EVs) and existing processes grow as well (fluid cracking catalysts), this implies steady demand for REEs.”
While Berry considers the establishment of new supply chains “a multi-year endeavour,” he adds, “a focus on recycling or funding of materials science to minimize foreign dependence of these materials is a reasonable near-term solution to encourage supply chain development.”
As for the raw materials, Green maintains the U.S. has REE resources sufficient for defence needs, which he says are relatively small. “We’re not trying to compete globally in the automotive, magnet or catalyst markets,” he emphasizes. “We’re trying to protect our national security needs.”
Yet the Congressional bill calls for assistance to all aspects of the supply chain, he says, “whether that’s processing, refinement, separation, beneficiation, metal production, alloy production, magnet production.”
Support for supply chains would benefit other sectors, he points out. “This is the old NASA model. The government for years invested in new technologies and we’ve reaped the benefits in consumer advancements. Just look at the refining industry for petroleum products, at catalysts, phosphors in electronics, magnets for vehicles, battery materials. I think the commercial applications are terrific.
“I believe the president will kind of cheerlead this effort along,” he adds. “That’s really a game-changer. He’s going to take the traditional free trade model and turn it on its head. He’ll say the rest of the world doesn’t play by these rules so we’re going to play smarter—we’re going to treat our industries like the rest of the world treats theirs.”
by Greg Klein | January 31, 2017
Lacking any domestic sources at all, the United States imported 100% of its supply of 20 minerals last year, the USGS reports. That number increased from 19 the previous year and 11 in 1984. Included in the 2016 list were rare earths, manganese and niobium, “which are among a suite of materials often designated as ‘critical’ or ‘strategic’ because they are essential to the economy and their supply may be disrupted.”
Imports of rare earth compounds and metals increased 6% over 2015, although the value dropped from $160 million to $120 million. China supplied 72% directly, with other imports coming from Estonia (7%), France (5%), Japan (5%) and other countries (11%).
But the Estonian, French and Japanese material was derived from concentrates produced in China and elsewhere, the USGS added.
American imports of tantalum increased about 40% over 2015. The USGS attributed about 37% of 2016 global production to the Democratic Republic of Congo and 32% to Rwanda. Estimates reverse those numbers for the previous year.
An alphabetical list of the 20 minerals follows, with rare earths, scandium and yttrium each comprising a separate category:
The report listed 50 minerals for which the U.S. imported over half of its supply. Overall China was the largest exporter, with Canada running second.
by Greg Klein
The appeal to Western markets is obvious—an advanced, low-cost rare earths project in a friendly jurisdiction. So even before the recent military build-up in the South China Sea, Commerce Resources TSXV:CCE experienced an increase in American requests for concentrate samples from its northern Quebec Ashram deposit. With the U.S. Navy now challenging Chinese territorial aggression, the confrontation seems to pit two superpowers against each other. But what does that really indicate?
It’s actually “one lonely small old Russian-built carrier against three U.S. Nimitz-class supercarriers,” Commerce president Chris Grove points out. “So when Beijing says it’s going to take off the gloves, I think they’re referring to trade.”
That brings to mind the Senkaku incident, a much smaller 2010 confrontation in the same region that prompted China to cut off rare earths exports to Japan, sending global supply chains into turmoil and prices soaring. A possible Senkaku redux is one of a number of aspects to a global paradigm shift that Grove sees coming, to the benefit of Western industry in general and Ashram in particular.
The U.S. might easily outgun China, but China produces about 90% of the world’s rare earths. They’re essential to several defence needs, “a fact that really drives certain people in the U.S. absolutely apoplectic,” says Grove.
While Westerners have struggled to compete with China on costs, prices mean little to the U.S. Department of Defense, which last year began putting money behind potential domestic processors, Grove says. That support complements a multi-faceted advantage that the West is gaining over China, he explains. The latter country struggles with rising labour costs and the need to finally address its environmental woes. Meanwhile Western countries offset their labour costs with technological innovation and maintain the world’s highest environmental standards.
Even putting aside defence, demand for rare earths continues to grow with another global development. The international commitment to address climate change through clean energy, exemplified by the Paris Agreement, increases rare earths demand for numerous applications ranging from EVs to wind turbines.
In a research report last year, Chris Berry noted that “REE usage continues to grow at a pace well above global GDP growth with demand CAGRs growing anywhere from 4% to 8%, with permanent magnet demand forecast to lead this charge to 2020.”
Clearly there’s a market for non-Chinese sources. And Grove sees Ashram uniquely positioned to help serve that market. Certainly others have failed but, he emphasizes, they lacked Ashram’s benefits of mineralogy, metallurgy, grade and jurisdiction—all of which add up to lower costs.
The project reached PEA in 2012, with an amended PEA in 2015. Since then the company’s been busy on multiple fronts as it advances towards pre-feasibility.
Ashram’s advantage begins with its relatively simple mineralogy, with carbonatite host rock and rare earths within the minerals monazite, bastnasite and xenotime, which dominate commercial REE processing.
Pilot plant metallurgical tests have quadrupled the PEA’s concentrate grade, producing 41% total rare earth oxides and 43% TREO, both at 71% recovery. That puts the grade well within the range of commercial producers and does so through a single-leach process that simplifies the flowsheet.
Requests for concentrate samples have come from Solvay, Mitsubishi, Treibacher, BASF, DKK, Albemarle and Blue Line, among others covered by non-disclosure agreements.
Metallurgy has also found a potential fluorspar byproduct, offering an advantage to both revenue and opex. Grove credits Glencore Canada’s interest in fluorspar with the willingness of its NorFalco Sales division to supply Commerce with sulphuric acid on highly favourable terms.
Proud as he is of Ashram’s high-grade, near-surface resource, Grove anticipates an even more impressive upgrade. The current estimate uses a 1.25% cutoff to show:
Commerce has since drilled another 9,200 metres, mostly infill but always with some stepout holes as well. “In all those drill programs, we always hit mineralized material in the stepouts, we always encountered less waste rock at surface than was modelled in the resource and we always hit zones that were higher than the average grade,” he says.
Ashram’s magnet feed distribution also has Grove enthused. Overall, the deposit ranks with the largest producers for praseodymium, neodymium, terbium and dysprosium. Ashram’s medium-to-heavy REO resource, moreover, surpasses the producers for those elements. And, as Grove points out, those are critical elements. Efforts to find substitutes for magnet REEs have failed.
Companies with higher operating costs are probably praying for higher prices. Commerce Resources doesn’t need them. We still have a margin at today’s prices.—Chris Grove
Benefiting both Ashram’s opex and the environment would be wind energy, currently being studied for the project. Commerce’s environmental commitment as well as its community outreach have been recognized by the e3 Plus Award for social responsibility from l’Association de l’exploration minière du Québec.
The company has also received a $300,000 provincial grant to optimize tailings management, funding that shows Quebec’s commitment to mining as well as the environment. Grove calls the province “a fantastic jurisdiction,” one that invests directly in companies through Ressources Québec and makes tangible progress on the visionary Plan Nord infrastructure program.
Following a private placement of up to $2.5 million offered last month, Grove looks forward to a number of near-term milestones. Still to come are final assays from last year’s drilling. The agenda also calls for completing the pilot plant and filling requests for REE and fluorspar concentrate samples. The samples, Grove suggests, could spur interest in a JV or offtake agreement.
The Commerce quest for rare metals hasn’t been confined to rare earths. Last September sampling on the company’s property about a kilometre from Ashram found “spectacular” results up to 5.9% niobium pentoxide, described by Grove as “approximately double the grade of the largest and longest-running niobium producer’s head grade, CBMM’s Araxa deposit in Brazil.”
Commerce also holds the Blue River project in southeastern British Columbia. The property’s Upper Fir tantalum-niobium deposit reached PEA in 2011 and a resource update in 2013.
But Commerce remains very much focused on Ashram. Whether events in the South China Sea send RE prices soaring, Grove sees possible increases coming from producers boosting revenues. But, he emphasizes, Ashram doesn’t need higher prices. “Companies with higher operating costs are probably praying for higher prices,” he says. “Commerce Resources doesn’t need them. We still have a margin at today’s prices.”
How does your mobile phone last for 12 hours on just one charge? It’s the power of cobalt, along with several other energy metals, that keeps your lithium-ion battery running.
The only problem? Getting the metal from the source to your electronics is not an easy feat, and this makes for an extremely precarious supply chain for manufacturers.
This infographic comes to us from LiCo Energy Metals TSXV:LIC and it focuses on where this important ingredient of green technology originates from, and the supply risks associated with its main sources.
What is cobalt?
Cobalt is a transition metal found between iron and nickel on the periodic table. It has a high melting point (1493° C) and retains its strength to a high temperature.
Similar to iron or nickel, cobalt is ferromagnetic. It can retain its magnetic properties to 1100° C, a higher temperature than any other material. Ferromagnetism is the strongest type of magnetism: it’s the only one that typically creates forces strong enough to be felt and is responsible for the magnets encountered in everyday life.
These unique properties make the metal perfect for two specialized high-tech purposes: superalloys and battery cathodes.
High-performance alloys drive 18% of cobalt demand. The metal’s ability to withstand intense temperatures and conditions makes it perfect for use in:
Batteries drive 49% of demand—and most of this comes from cobalt’s use in lithium-ion battery cathodes:
|Type of lithium-ion cathode||Cobalt in cathode||Spec. energy (Wh/kg)|
The three most powerful cathode formulations for li-ion batteries all need cobalt. As a result, the metal is indispensable in many of today’s battery-powered devices:
The Tesla Powerwall 2 uses approximately seven kilograms and a Tesla Model S (90 kWh) uses approximately 22.5 kilos of the energy metal.
The cobalt supply chain
Cobalt production has gone almost straight up to meet demand, more than doubling since the early 2000s.
But while the metal is desired, getting it is the hard part.
1. No native cobalt has ever been found.
There are four widely distributed ores that exist but almost no cobalt is mined from them as a primary source.
2. Most cobalt production is mined as a byproduct.
|Mine source||% cobalt production|
This means it is hard to expand production when more is needed.
3. Most production occurs in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country with elevated supply risks.
|Rest of World||52,785||43.0%|
(Source: CRU, estimated production for 2017, tonnes)
The future of cobalt supply
Companies like Tesla and Panasonic need reliable sources of the metal and right now there aren’t many failsafes.
The United States hasn’t mined cobalt in significant volumes since 1971 and the USGS reports that the U.S. only has 301 tonnes of the metal stored in stockpiles.
The reality is that the DRC produces about half of all cobalt and it also holds approximately 47% of all global reserves.
Why is this a concern for end-users?
1. The DRC is one of the poorest, most corrupt and most coercive countries on the planet.
2. The DRC has had more deaths from war since WWII than any other country on the planet.
Recent wars in the DRC:
3. Human rights in mining
The DRC government estimates that 20% of all cobalt production in the country comes from artisanal miners—independent workers who dig holes and mine ore without sophisticated mines or machinery.
There are at least 100,000 artisanal cobalt miners in the DRC and UNICEF estimates that up to 40,000 children could be in the trade. Children can be as young as seven years old and they can work up to 12 hours with physically demanding work earning $2 per day.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International alleges that Apple, Samsung and Sony fail to do basic checks in making sure the metal in their supply chains did not come from child labour.
Most major companies have vowed that any such practices will not be tolerated in their supply chains.
Where will tomorrow’s supply come from and will the role of the DRC eventually diminish? Will Tesla achieve its goal of a North American supply chain for its key metal inputs?
Mining exploration companies are already looking at regions like Ontario, Idaho, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories to find tomorrow’s deposits.
Ontario: Ontario is one of the only places in the world where cobalt-primary mines have existed. This camp is near the aptly named town of Cobalt, which is located halfway between Sudbury, the world’s nickel capital, and Val-d’Or, one of the most famous gold camps in the world.
Idaho: Idaho is known as the Gem State while also being known for its silver camps in Coeur d’Alene—but it has also been a cobalt producer in the past.
B.C.: The mountains of B.C. are known for their rich gold, silver, copper, zinc and met coal deposits. But cobalt often occurs with copper and some mines in B.C. have produced cobalt in the past.
Northwest Territories: Cobalt can also be found up north, as the NWT becomes a more interesting mineral destination for companies. One hundred and sixty kilometres from Yellowknife, a gold-cobalt-bismuth-copper deposit is being developed.
Posted with permission of Visual Capitalist.
by Greg Klein
Some say optimism was evident early in the year, as the trade shows and investor conferences began. Certainly as 2016 progressed, so did much of the market. Commodities, some of them anyway, picked up. In a lot of cases, so did valuations. The crystal ball of the industry’s predictionariat often seemed to shine a rosier tint. It must have been the first time in years that people actually stopped saying, “I think we’ve hit bottom.”
But it would have been a full-out bull market if every commodity emulated lithium.
By February Benchmark Mineral Intelligence reported the chemical’s greatest-ever price jump as both hydroxide and carbonate surpassed $10,000 a tonne, a 47% increase for the latter’s 2015 average. The Macquarie Group later cautioned that the Big Four of Albermarle NYSE:ALB, FMC Corp NYSE:FMC, SQM NYSE:SQM and Talison Lithium had been mining significantly below capacity and would ramp up production to protect market share.
That they did, as new supply was about to come online from sources like Galaxy Resources’ Mount Cattlin mine in Western Australia, which began commissioning in November. The following month Orocobre TSX:ORL announced plans to double output from its Salar de Olaroz project in Argentina. Even Bolivia sent a token 9.3 tonnes to China, suggesting the mining world’s outlaw finally intends to develop its lithium deposits, estimated to be the world’s largest at 22% of global potential.
Disagreeing with naysayers like Macquarie and tracking at least 12 Li-ion megafactories being planned, built or expanded to gigawatt-hour capacity by 2020, Benchmark in December predicted further price increases for 2017.
Obviously there was no keeping the juniors out of this. Whether or not it’s a bubble destined to burst, explorers snapped up prospects, issuing news releases at an almost frantic flow that peaked in mid-summer. Acquisitions and early-stage activity often focused on the western U.S., South America’s Lithium Triangle and several Canadian locations too.
In Quebec’s James Bay region, Whabouchi was subject of a feasibility update released in April. Calling the development project “one of the richest spodumene hard rock lithium deposits in the world, both in volume and grade,” Nemaska Lithium TSX:NMX plans to ship samples from its mine and plant in Q2 2017.
A much more despairing topic was cobalt, considered by some observers to be the energy metal to watch. At press time instability menaced the Democratic Republic of Congo, which produces an estimated 60% of global output. Far overshadowing supply-side concerns, however, was the threat of a humanitarian crisis triggered by president Joseph Kabila’s refusal to step down at the end of his mandate on December 20.
But the overall buoyant market mood had a practical basis in base metals, led by zinc. In June prices bounced back from the six-year lows of late last year to become “by far the best-performing LME metal,” according to Reuters. Two months later a UBS spokesperson told the news agency refiners were becoming “panicky.”
Mine closures in the face of increasing demand for galvanized steel and, later in the year, post-U.S. election expectations of massive infrastructure programs, pushed prices 80% above the previous year. They then fell closer to 70%, but remained well within levels unprecedented over the last five years. By mid-December one steelmaker told the Wall Street Journal to expect “a demand explosion.”
Lead lagged, but just for the first half of 2016. Spot prices had sunk to about 74 cents a pound in early June, when the H2 ascension began. Reaching an early December peak of about $1.08, the highest since 2013, the metal then slipped beneath the dollar mark.
Copper lay at or near five-year lows until November, when a Trump-credited surge sent the red metal over 60% higher, to about $2.54 a pound. Some industry observers doubted it would last. But columnist Andy Home dated the rally to October, when the Donald was expected to lose. Home attributed copper’s rise to automated trading: “Think the copper market equivalent of Skynet, the artificial intelligence network that takes over the world in the Terminator films.” While other markets have experienced the same phenomenon, he maintained, it’s probably the first, but not the last time for a base metal.
Nickel’s spot price started the year around a piddling $3.70 a pound. But by early December it rose to nearly $5.25. That still compared poorly with 2014 levels well above $9 and almost $10 in 2011. Nickel’s year was characterized by Indonesia’s ban on exports of unprocessed metals and widespread mine suspensions in the Philippines, up to then the world’s biggest supplier of nickel ore.
More controversial for other reasons, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte began ordering suspensions shortly after his June election. His environmental secretary Regina Lopez then exhorted miners to surpass the world’s highest environmental standards, “better than Canada, better than Australia. We must be better and I know it can be done.”
Uranium continued to present humanity with a dual benefit—a carbon-free fuel for emerging middle classes and a cautionary example for those who would predict the future. Still oblivious to optimistic forecasts, the recalcitrant metal scraped a post-Fukushima low of $18 in December before creeping to $20.25 on the 19th. The stuff fetched around $72 a pound just before the 2011 tsunami and hit $136 in 2007.
Every “thing” comes from somewhere.
This infographic from BullionVault shows the top three producing countries of various commodities such as oil, gold, coffee and iron.
The many and the few
The origins of the world’s most important raw materials are interesting to examine because the production of certain commodities is much more concentrated than others.
Oil, for example, is extracted by many countries throughout the world because it forms in fairly universal circumstances. Oil is also a giant market and a strategic resource, so some countries are even willing to produce it at a loss. The largest three crude oil-producing countries are the United States, Saudi Arabia and Russia—but that only makes up 38% of the total market.
Contrast this with the market for some base metals such as iron or lead and the difference is clear. China consumes mind-boggling amounts of raw materials to feed its factories, so it tries to get them domestically. That’s why China alone produces 45% of the world’s iron and 52% of all lead. Nearby Australia also finds a way to take advantage of this: It is the second-largest producer for each of those commodities and ships much of its output to Chinese trading partners. A total of two-thirds of the world’s iron and lead comes from these two countries, making production extremely concentrated.
But even that pales in comparison with the market for platinum, which is so heavily concentrated that only a few countries are significant producers. South Africa extracts 71% of all platinum, while Russia and Zimbabwe combine for another 19% of global production. That means only one in every 10 ounces of platinum comes from a country other than those three sources.