Tuesday 18th June 2019

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U.S. critical minerals strategy includes Canada and other allies

June 5th, 2019

by Greg Klein | June 5, 2019

The country’s tariff tactics might present an image of Fortress America battling its adversaries, but a new critical minerals strategy advocates greater co-operation between the U.S. and its friends. The manifestation of Washington’s growing concern about securing resources and building supply chains, a federal report released June 4 announces six calls to action, 24 goals and 61 recommendations accompanied by timelines for accomplishment.

The U.S. includes Canada and other allies in its critical minerals strategy

Clearly, the Donald Trump administration recognizes the problem of relying on potentially unreliable sources, especially when they’re economic and geopolitical rivals: “If China or Russia were to stop exports to the United States and its allies for a prolonged period—similar to China’s rare earths embargo in 2010—an extended supply disruption could cause significant shocks throughout U.S. and foreign critical mineral supply chains.”

Rare earths provide an especially stark example of the problem, the report emphasizes. “The REE industry has experienced downsizing, business failure, and relocation in all phases of the supply chain, including mining, separation, metal reduction, alloying and downstream manufacturing of advanced technology products such as high performance rare earth permanent magnets.”

The report, A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals, follows a number of American initiatives including the formal classification of 35 critical minerals and a Secretary of Defense study released last September.

For 31 of the 35 critical minerals, the U.S. imports over 50% of its supply. For 14 of them, imports account for 100% of supply, creating “a strategic vulnerability for both our economy and our military with respect to adverse foreign government actions, natural disasters, and other events that could disrupt supply.”

If China or Russia were to stop exports to the United States and its allies for a prolonged period—similar to China’s rare earths embargo in 2010—an extended supply disruption could cause significant shocks throughout U.S. and foreign critical mineral supply chains.

Apart from finding new deposits, the report calls for specific measures to encourage R&D, new supply chains, additional and publicly available exploration data, land access and permitting, a workforce with appropriate skills and expertise, as well as international trade and co-operation.

On the latter topic, the report notes significant American reliance on Canada and Mexico for many essentials. “Working with them to develop their critical mineral deposits can help improve the security of U.S. supply.”

Washington’s agenda also calls for expanded collaboration with Canada, Australia, the EU, Japan and South Korea on a range of issues, from finding and developing resources to creating supply chains.

Although the U.S. began addressing the issue early in Trump’s administration, the report’s timing coincides with fears that another Chinese rare earths embargo could happen imminently. The U.S. relies on China directly for 80% of its imports, while much of the remainder comes from China indirectly. America’s sole REE mine, Mountain Pass in California, exports all its production to China.

That leaves Western Australian miner Lynas Corp as the only major producer outside China that is, as CEO/managing director Amanda Lacaze stated, “focused on rest-of-the-world markets, that is non-Chinese markets.” Although her company faces tremendous challenges meeting Malaysian government demands for its processing facility in that country, the government has made mildly conciliatory statements in advance of a June 20 meeting with Lynas.

Turbulent times for Lynas

May 17th, 2019

Rare earths provide a cautionary tale about supply chain weaknesses

by Greg Klein | Updated May 21, 2019

Rare earths provide a cautionary tale about supply chain weaknesses

One of the world’s biggest supplies of magnet metals
undergoes separation at Lynas’ Malaysian facility. (Photo: Lynas Corp)

 

How often does an investor presentation draw such keen interest from non-investors?

No doubt representatives from a number of governments and industries watched intensely on May 21 as Lynas CEO/managing director Amanda Lacaze accentuated her company’s “will to win.” Lynas has plans in place and funding en route to overcome what previously appeared to be an unattainable ultimatum. Far from becoming a takeover target, let alone a jurisdictional fatality, the miner expects to continue building a rare earths supply chain “focused on rest-of-the-world markets, that is non-Chinese markets.”

That was her message, and if stirring delivery could convince listeners, Lacaze made her case. But insufficient details cast a pall of uncertainty. Clearly the company can’t meet a September 2 deadline to remove over 450,000 tonnes of radioactive waste from Malaysia and thereby avert a processing plant shutdown in that country which would render useless the company’s Mount Weld mine in Western Australia.

Rare earths provide a cautionary tale about supply chain weaknesses

One of the world’s richest rare earths deposits, Mount Weld boasts reserves expected to give over 25 additional years of production at 22,000 tonnes of rare earth oxides annually. Included is an especially bountiful distribution of the magnet metals neodymium and praseodymium. Lynas concentrates ore in WA before shipping material to Malaysia for refining and separation. But while rare earths metallurgy has stymied some other non-Chinese operations, this facility has operated successfully since 2012.

At least it did so under Malaysia’s previous government. Its first electoral defeat since the country’s 1957 independence brought to office a party long opposed to Lynas’ operation in Kuantan. Concerns about waste containing thorium and uranium brought to mind a Malaysian RE refinery operated by Mitsubishi up to 1992. The plant closed down after an increase in leukemia and birth defects that critics attributed to the operation’s waste.

Following an environmental review of Lynas’ facility late last year, the new government delivered two formidable demands: Ensure that all material brought into the country has been rendered non-radioactive. And remove seven years of accumulated radioactive tailings from the country by September 2. Failure to do so will shut down the plant, the government warned.

An enormous logistical problem notwithstanding, Lacaze and her “dream team” told investors they have solutions backed by a AU$500-million “capital envelope” from senior lender Japan Australia Rare Earths (JARE) and the Japanese trading company Sojitz Corp.

“Of course we cannot do this on the smell of an oily rag, much as we might like to,” Lacaze acknowledged.

Rare earths provide a cautionary tale about supply chain weaknesses

Lynas managing director Dato’ Mashal Ahmad at the
podium, CEO Amanda Lacaze holding the microphone
at the company’s May 21 shareholder presentation.

A new cracking and leaching plant to be built in WA would “detox” Mount Weld material. Plans to pour money into Malaysia to upgrade the company’s Kuantan facility also sounded an optimistic note. But accumulated waste remains troublesome.

As managing director Dato’ Mashal Ahmad explained, the company will counter the ultimatum by asking the government to choose one of two options: Allow Lynas to treat the waste by producing a type of fertilizer, or allow Lynas to build another waste depository in Malaysia. The company already has four years of research backing Option 1. As for Option 2, “which Lynas is prepared to do anytime,” the company has already chosen three potential sites.

To those skeptical that Malaysia would accept the proposals, Ahmad said the environmental review, which hasn’t been officially translated, pronounced the Kuantan operation safe. Politicians, not the report’s authors, issued the ultimatum, he maintained. Discussions with the government continue and another decision will come from the entire government, not individual politicians, Lacaze added. Based on what she termed “relatively constructive” public comments from Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, she expressed “confidence in the outcome.”

An entirely different possibility for Lynas arose last March when Wesfarmers launched a AU$1.5-billion bid for the miner. One of Australia’s largest listed companies and a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate with interests including chemicals, energy, fertilizers and industrial products, Wesfarmers imposed a daunting condition: Kuantan must retain a valid permit for a “satisfactory period following completion of the transaction.” 

Lynas spurned the offer, provoking talk from Wesfarmers of going hostile. Undeterred, and the day before proclaiming its “will to win,” Lynas joined one of its customers, downstream rare earths processor Blue Line Corp, to announce a memorandum of understanding to build an RE separation plant in Texas. The proposed joint venture “would be the only large-scale producer of separated medium and heavy rare earth products in the world outside of China,” the companies stated.

Of course the Blue Line MOU lacks certainty, as does the strategy of presenting options in the face of a government ultimatum. $500 million isn’t all that much. To industry observers, the predicament once again emphasizes the need to create non-Chinese supply chains.

Rare earths provide a cautionary tale about supply chain weaknesses

A founding principal of Technology Metals
Research LLC and a senior fellow at the
Institute for Analysis of Global Security,
Jack Lifton has over 55 years’ experience
with technology metals.

Speaking with ResourceClips.com the week before Lynas’ May 20-21 announcements, Jack Lifton discussed the urgency of addressing critical minerals challenges.

A chemist specializing in metallurgy, a consultant, author and lecturer focusing on rare earths, lithium and other essentials that he labels “technology metals,” Lifton was one of four scientists hired by the previous Malaysian government to evaluate the Kuantan facility prior to its initial permit.

Wesfarmers “would have the money and the time” to solve Lynas’ problems, he said. “A $38-billion company can spend a year fixing problems and stay in business. If Lynas were shut down for a year, I think that would be the end of it.”

Earlier this month Wesfarmers offered AU$776 million for ASX-listed Kidman Resources, which shares a 50/50 JV with Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile SA (SQM) on the advanced-stage Mount Holland lithium project in Western Australia.

“Wesfarmers clearly knows all the problems with Lynas but they’re still interested in buying it,” Lifton pointed out.

The possibility of a Chinese buy-out, on the other hand, could meet opposition from either of two governments. Malaysia’s previous administration feared Chinese influence, Lifton says.

As for Australia, “I do not think that the government, as it will be constituted after this election, will allow the Chinese to buy what is basically the largest high-grade deposit of magnet rare earths on the planet,” he says. Even so, Chinese control could eliminate the Malaysian problem. “China has immense facilities and excess capacity for treating ore like that. They wouldn’t need the Malaysian plant, not at all.”

Control need not mean total ownership. Following Molycorp’s bankruptcy, California’s Mountain Pass mine quietly resumed production last year under MP Materials. With China’s Shenghe Rare Earth Company a minority shareholder, North America’s sole rare earths producer exports all its output to China.

Shenghe Resources comprises the world’s second-largest RE company by output. It holds a majority stake in ASX-listed Greenland Minerals, which describes its Kvanefjeld polymetallic deposit as having “potential to become the most significant Western world producer of rare earths.” Last August the companies signed an offtake MOU for the proposed mine’s total RE production.

Huatai Mining, a subsidiary of Chinese coal trader Shandong Taizhong Energy, holds 15.9% of ASX-listed Northern Minerals, which plans to become the “first significant dysprosium producer outside China” at the Browns Range project in Western Australia.

“Everything from Browns Range is now going to China for refining and use,” Lifton notes. “My understanding is that’s what’s going to happen in Greenland.”

Neither Greenland nor Northern can handle separation, he explains. “They can concentrate the ore, but where are the facilities to separate individual rare earths from the mixed concentrate? They are, today, overwhelmingly in China. The Chinese have an advantage in excess refining capacity.”

While Lifton thinks Malaysia would welcome Japanese ownership of Lynas, the Japanese no longer have processing abilities. They’re also burdened by Mitsubishi’s legacy.

“China does not, to the best of my knowledge, have ore as rich as Mount Weld. I don’t know of any other deposit on earth that’s so high-grade and well-distributed with magnet materials. So anyone who has processing would love to have that.”

If we don’t reconstitute a total American supply chain, if the Europeans don’t do the same, for the critical materials like rare earths, cobalt, lithium, we’re going to be out of luck.—Jack Lifton

Such a fate is now pure speculation but should Lynas face a Sino-scenario, it would only intensify a trend well underway, he adds. “They already have the largest RE industry on the planet and they’re buying RE, cobalt and other critical assets in Greenland, Africa, Australia, South America.

“If we don’t reconstitute a total American supply chain, if the Europeans don’t do the same, for the critical materials like rare earths, cobalt, lithium, we’re going to be out of luck. The Chinese in my opinion are already self-sufficient in rare earths, lithium and cobalt. They have mines all over the world that they own and operate, they have the bulk of chemical processing. They’re going to take care of their domestic needs first, and then if they want to export, they’ll control the price, the supply, and they do control the demand because at this time about 60% of all world metals goes to China.

“In America there’s a lot of talk now about critical minerals and some people are saying we need ‘a conversation’ on the subject. So while we think about it and have conversations, the Chinese are setting themselves up for the rest of this century.”

Got the minerals?

March 4th, 2019

A new book says self-imposed obstacles block U.S. self-sufficiency

by Greg Klein

“The Middle East has oil, China has rare earths.”

Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 implied threat became all too real eight years later in the Senkaku aftermath, when RE dependency put Japan and the West at China’s mercy. But just as the United States overcame the 1973 OPEC embargo to become the world’s leading oil producer, that country can overcome its growing reliance on dodgy sources of mineral production and processing. So say authors Ned Mamula and Ann Bridges in Groundbreaking! America’s New Quest for Mineral Independence.

Their country’s problem isn’t geology but policies, the book argues. Repeatedly pointing to Canada and Australia as role models, the authors say their own country’s mining potential can restore mining self-sufficiency, or at least minimize a crippling dependency.

A new book says self-imposed obstacles block U.S. self-sufficiency

Indeed, the mighty nation has a mighty problem with minerals: Imports supply many critical minerals and metals in their entirety, with heavy reliance on Russia and especially China, “countries we consider at best our competitors, and at worst our adversaries.”

Rare earths stand out as the “poster child for U.S. critical mineral vulnerability.” As the authors note, REs remain “essential for military and civilian use, for the production of high-performance permanent magnets, GPS guidance systems, satellite imaging and night vision equipment, cellphones, iPads, flat screens, MRIs and electric toothbrushes, sunglasses, and a myriad of other technology products. Since they offer that extra boost to so many new technologies, these rare earth metals rival energy in importance to our 21st century lifestyle.”

Industrial countries not only surrendered rare earths mining and processing to China, but gave up technological secrets too. That happened when China forced RE-dependent manufacturers to move their operations to China. After Apple transplanted some of its manufacturing to that country, China copied and reproduced the company’s products, at times outselling the iPhone with knock-offs.

A new book says self-imposed obstacles block U.S. self-sufficiency

Other intellectual property faces threats. “U.S. companies—Intematix, GE (Healthcare/MRI Division), Ford (Starter Motor Division), and Battery 1,2,3—have all added manufacturing capacity in China, and so has Japan’s Showa Denko, Santoku, and scores of other global electronics companies.”

RE dominance has also allowed China to lead the world in technology for electric vehicles, renewable energy and next-generation nuclear power. And America relies on its rival for defence: “Most of the U.S.’ advanced weapon systems procurement is 100% dependent on China for advanced metallurgical materials.”

Foreign dependency includes tantalum, “critical to the economy and national defense,” gallium, cobalt, uranium and the list goes on.

According to a just-published report from the U.S. Geological Survey, “in 2018, imports made up more than half of U.S apparent consumption for 48 non-fuel mineral commodities, and the U.S. was 100% net import-reliant for 18 of those.

“For 2018, critical minerals comprised 14 of the 18 mineral commodities with 100% net import reliance and 15 additional critical mineral commodities had a net import reliance greater than 50% of apparent consumption. The largest number of non-fuel mineral commodities were supplied to the U.S. from China, followed by Canada.”

The takeover of former TSX listing Uranium One by Russia’s state-owned Rosatom brings threats worse than most observers realized, the authors say. The acquisition granted the Russian government membership in trade organizations and therefore valuable intel formerly available only through espionage. Uranium One also gives Russia the ability to curtail future American uranium production and use its influence on Kazakhstan, the world’s top producer, to flood the U.S. with cheaper, subsidized supply. That could put both U.S. production and processing out of business in a tactic reminiscent of China’s RE machinations.

China’s communist government uses a ‘debt trap’ model of economic development and finance which proffers substantial financing to developing countries in exchange for an encumbrance on their minerals resources and access to markets. This predatory model has been particularly effective in countries characterized by weak rule of law and authoritarian regimes.—Ned Mamula
and Ann Bridges

The Chinese “are now masters at securing and controlling core natural resources globally, especially minerals.” The country uses long-term contracts, equity investments and joint ventures, as well as the “debt trap” that provides “substantial financing to developing countries in exchange for an encumbrance on their minerals resources and access to markets. This predatory model has been particularly effective in countries characterized by weak rule of law and authoritarian regimes.”

The U.S., meanwhile, suffers not only from naivete and short-term thinking, but from self-induced challenges. The authors devote an entire chapter to Alaska’s Pebble project, maybe the world’s largest undeveloped copper-gold-molybdenum deposit. After more than two decades and over $150 million in spending, “Pebble is still more about politics than geology, much less mining the minerals known to exist there.”

The story stands out as “the classic cautionary tale in U.S. history of how a powerful federal regulatory agency can go rogue and impose its will on an unsuspecting permit applicant.”

Suggestions to alleviate these ills include streamlining the permitting process, among other recommendations to open up domestic production and re-build supply chains. One of the authors’ more interesting ideas concerns teaming up with environmental activists to promote ethical green supply chains that would shut out conflict minerals.

The book’s marred by repetition, sloppy English and some bold-faced typographical shouting. It’s also cluttered with a few questionable information sources and excerpts from a novel that would have been better left unwritten. The portrayal of Canada as a role model, moreover, might induce bitter laughter from this side of the border. But Groundbreaking offers a vital message to general readers. In doing so, it could reinforce a growing awareness in the U.S. about the need to minimize foreign dependency.

Read more about U.S. efforts to secure critical minerals here and here.

Depending on the enemy

October 10th, 2018

The U.S. calls for new supply strategies to meet economic and defence risks

by Greg Klein

The goal might be summed up by a new slogan: Make America Self-Reliant Again. Or, with a tad less concision: Let’s Stop Relying on an Economic Rival that’s a Potential Military Threat for the Stuff We Need to Compete with an Economic Rival that’s a Potential Military Threat.

A newly released study from the U.S. Secretary of Defense illustrates that absurd dilemma. The dependency runs the gamut from sourcing raw materials to refining them, manufacturing key components, developing R&D, training workers, even setting prices. As the report says, “The central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by what the National Security Strategy classifies as revisionist powers. It is increasingly clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.”

The U.S. calls for new supply chain strategies to meet economic and defence risks

But Russia merits little mention in the 146-page document. China comes up again and again as the pre-eminent economic and military threat with a long-term hegemonic strategy.

That strategy’s been very successful, leaving the U.S. sorely unprepared for the resulting risks. Ordered by President Donald Trump in July 2017, the report urges a government-wide program to address the entire range of supply chain challenges.

The 2010 Senkaku incident, dramatic as it was, can be seen as a mere microcosm of a much bigger threat.

“China’s domination of the rare earth element market illustrates the potentially dangerous interaction between Chinese economic aggression guided by its strategic industrial policies and vulnerabilities and gaps in America’s manufacturing and defense industrial base,” the report warns. “China has strategically flooded the global market with rare earths at subsidized prices, driven out competitors, and deterred new market entrants. When China needs to flex its soft power muscles by embargoing rare earths, it does not hesitate, as Japan learned in a 2010 maritime dispute.”

It was a lesson learned by other countries too. The report describes rare earths as “critical elements used across many of the major weapons systems the U.S. relies on for national security, including lasers, radar, sonar, night vision systems, missile guidance, jet engines, and even alloys for armored vehicles.”

Rare earths figure prominently in the U.S. list of 35 critical minerals drafted last February and confirmed in May. American dependency was further highlighted when the country dropped rare earths from a revised list of tariffs on Chinese imports announced in September.

China’s soft power hardball has targeted other American allies as well, waging “aggressive economic warfare” against South Korea after the country installed an American air defence system. Other examples of “economic coercion” include “a ban on Philippine bananas over territorial disputes in the South China Sea; the aforementioned restriction of rare earth exports to Japan following the Senkaku Islands dispute in 2010; persistent economic intimidation against Taiwan; and the recent ceding of a Sri Lankan port.”

China can play nice too. But at a price. The country invests heavily in developing countries, often building infrastructure “in exchange for an encumbrance on their natural resources and access to their markets.”

As for Chinese electronics exports, they “lack the level of scrutiny placed on U.S. manufacturers, driving lower yields and higher rates of failures in downstream production, and raising the risk of ‘Trojan’ chips and viruses infiltrating U.S. defense systems.”

Technological expertise becomes a strategic weapon too. “As part of its industrial policy aggression, China has forced many American companies to offshore their R&D in exchange for access to the Chinese market.”

With an advanced-stage rare earths project in northern Quebec as well as advanced-stage tantalum-niobium in southern British Columbia, Commerce Resources TSXV:CCE president Chris Grove keeps tabs on Canada’s neighbour. “People in Washington tell me the anxiety level on these issues has never been higher,” he notes.

Here’s the world’s biggest military and they’re saying, ‘We need Chinese stuff to make it all work?’ That’s really for most Americans an absolutely untenable and unbelievable position of weakness.—Chris Grove,
president of Commerce Resources

“Apart from the trade imbalance between the U.S. and China, there’s the vulnerability of the U.S. military. Here’s the world’s biggest military and they’re saying, ‘We need Chinese stuff to make it all work?’ That’s really for most Americans an absolutely untenable and unbelievable position of weakness.”

Sources in Washington encouraged Grove to apply for a research grant from the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency. If successful, the application would bring up to $3 million to further metallurgical progress on his company’s Ashram rare earths project, advancing a potential source in a stable and allied country.

That would complement one of the report’s key recommendations, to “diversify away from complete dependency on sources of supply in politically unstable countries who may cut off U.S. access; diversification strategies may include re-engineering, expanded use of the National Defense Stockpile program, or qualification of new suppliers.”

Other recommendations include creating an industrial policy that supports national security, working with allies and partners on industrial development, expanding industrial investment, addressing manufacturing and industrial risk within the energy and nuclear sectors, encouraging home-grown scientific expertise and occupational skills, and exploring next generation technology for future threats.

In ordering the study, Trump stated the loss of key companies, over 60,000 American factories and almost five million manufacturing jobs since 2000 “threatens to undermine the capacity and capabilities of United States manufacturers to meet national defense requirements and raises concerns about the health of the manufacturing and defense industrial base.”

Can’t live without them

March 23rd, 2018

The U.S. Critical Materials Institute develops new technologies for crucial commodities

by Greg Klein

A rare earths supply chain outside China? It exists in the United States and Alex King has proof on his desk in the form of neodymium-iron-boron magnets, an all-American achievement from mine to finished product. But the Critical Materials Institute director says it’s up to manufacturers to take this pilot project to an industry-wide scale. Meanwhile the CMI looks back on its first five years of successful research while preparing future projects to help supply the stuff of modern life.

The U.S. Critical Materials Institute develops new technologies and strategies for crucial commodities

Alex King: “There’s a lot of steps in rebuilding that supply chain.
Our role as researchers is to demonstrate it can be done.
We’ve done that.” (Photo: Colorado School of Mines)

The CMI’s genesis came in the wake of crisis. China’s 2010 ban on rare earths exports to Japan abruptly destroyed non-Chinese supply chains. As other countries began developing their own deposits, China changed tactics to flood the market with relatively cheap output.

Since then the country has held the rest of the world dependent, producing upwards of 90% of global production for these metals considered essential to energy, defence and the overall economy.

That scenario prompted U.S. Congress to create the CMI in 2013, as one of four Department of Energy innovation hubs. Involving four national laboratories, seven universities, about a dozen corporations and roughly 350 researchers, the interdisciplinary group gets US$25 million a year and “a considerable amount of freedom” to pursue its mandate, King says.

The CMI channels all that into four areas. One is to develop technologies that help make new mines viable. The second, “in direct conflict with the first,” is to find alternative materials. Efficient use of commodities comprises the third focus, through improvements in manufacturing, recycling and re-use.

“Those three areas are supported by a fourth, which is a kind of cross-cutting research focus extending across a wide range of areas including quantum physics, chemistry, environmental impact studies and, last but certainly not least, economics—what’s the economic impact of the work we do, what’s its potential, where are the economically most impactful areas for our researchers to address,” King relates.

With 30 to 35 individual projects underway at any time, CMI successes include the Nd-Fe-B batteries. They began with ore from Mountain Pass, the California mine whose 2015 shutdown set back Western rare earths aspirations.

The U.S. Critical Materials Institute develops new technologies and strategies for crucial commodities

Nevertheless “that ore was separated into individual rare earth oxides in a pilot scale facility in Idaho National Lab,” explains King. “The separated rare earth oxides were reduced to master alloys at a company called Infinium in the Boston area. The master alloys were brought to the Ames Lab here at Iowa State University and fabricated into magnets. So all the skills are here in the U.S. We know how to do it. I have the magnets on my desk as proof.”

But, he asks, “can we do that on an industrial scale? That depends on companies picking up and taking ownership of some of these processes.”

In part, that would require the manufacturers who use the magnets to leave Asia. “Whether it’s an electric motor, a hard disk drive, the speakers in your phone or whatever, all that’s done in Asia,” King points out. “And that means it is most advantageous to make the magnets in Asia.”

America does have existing potential domestic demand, however. The U.S. remains a world leader in manufacturing loudspeakers and is a significant builder of industrial motors. Those two sectors might welcome a reliable rare earths supply chain.

“There’s a lot of steps in rebuilding that supply chain. Our role as researchers is to demonstrate it can be done. We’ve done that.”

Among other accomplishments over its first five years, the CMI found alternatives to both europium and terbium in efficient lighting, developed a number of improvements in the viability of rare earths mining and created much more efficient RE separation.

“We also developed a new use for cerium, which is an over-produced rare earth that is a burden on mining,” King says. “We have an aluminum-cerium alloy that is now in production and has actually entered the commercial marketplace and is being sold. Generating use for cerium should generate additional cash flow for some of the traditional forms of rare earths mining.”

Getting back to magnets, “we also invented a way of making them that is much more efficient, greatly reduces sensitive materials like neodymium and dysprosium, and makes electric devices like motors and generators much more efficient.”

All these materials have multiple uses. It’s not like they don’t have interest in the Pentagon and other places.—Alex King

Future projects will focus less on rare earths but more on lithium. The CMI will also tackle several others from the draft list of 35 critical minerals the U.S. released in February: cobalt, manganese, gallium, indium, tellurium, platinum group metals, vanadium and graphite. “These are the ones where we feel we can make the most impact.”

While the emphasis remains on energy minerals, “all these materials have multiple uses. It’s not like they don’t have interest in the Pentagon and other places.”

But the list is hardly permanent, while the challenges will continue. “We’ve learned a huge amount over the last five years about how the market responds when a material becomes critical,” he recalls. “And that knowledge is incredibly valuable because we anticipate there will be increasing incidences of materials going critical. Technology’s moving so fast and demand is shifting so fast that supply will have a hard time keeping up. That will cause short-term supply shortfalls or even excesses. What we need to do is capture the wisdom that has been won in the rare earths crisis and recovery, and be ready to apply that as other materials go critical in the future.”

Alex King speaks at Argus Specialty Metals Week, held in Henderson, Nevada, from April 16 to 18. For a 15% discount on registration, enter code RARE2018.

Double discovery

November 18th, 2017

The USGS reports new American uranium potential and a new uranium “species”

by Greg Klein

The USGS reports new American uranium potential and a new uranium “species”

The Southern High Plains of Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma
might someday boost U.S. domestic uranium supply.
(Photo: Public domain)

 

The dream of discovery must motivate many a geologist. Through skill, effort and luck they hope to eventually find something precious, useful or otherwise valuable—something well known yet found in a previously unknown location. But a group of geo-boffins from the U.S. Geological Survey not only identified a type of uranium deposit previously unknown to their country, they discovered a new mineral.

It’s finchite, “a new uranium mineral species,” as a press release described it last week. The discovery actually dates to 2015, says Brad Van Gosen, the USGS scientist who did the discovering.

While surveying a Texas cotton ranch Van Gosen collected samples of what he and his colleagues thought was carnotite, “a pretty common yellow, near-surface uranium mineral.” Back in the lab, he put it under a scanning electron microscope, which kept showing strontium with the uranium and vanadium, he recalls. To a geologist, it was unusual—very unusual. A eureka moment was looming.

The USGS reports new American uranium potential and a new uranium “species”

First to recognize the new mineral finchite, USGS scientist
Brad Van Gosen examines rock layers in Texas.
(Photo: Susan Hall/USGS, public domain)

“We looked it up and there’d been no strontium-uranium mineral ever reported before. So [team leader Susan Hall] worked with a crystallography/mineralogy lab that specializes in micro-analysis up at Notre Dame and they concluded, ‘By gosh you’re right.’” Further study continued before sending the evidence to the International Mineralogical Association. “They’re the high council and they blessed it as a new mineral.” Finchite’s moniker honours the late Warren Finch, a USGS uranium expert.

Another major finding was that the uranium was hosted in calcrete rock formations, a style of deposit known elsewhere but reported for the first time in the U.S.

Some previously secret info led to the twin epiphanies. Hall, as leader of a project that’s reassessing national uranium resources, gained privy to some unpublished 1970s and ’80s data from the former Kerr-McGee company. Included were estimates for two deposits, Sulphur Springs Draw and Buffalo Draw, with marginal grades of 0.04% and 0.05% U3O8 respectively. Together they held an estimated 2.6 million pounds U3O8.

(Of course data from historic sources and the U.S. government agency falls outside the framework of NI 43-101 regulations.)

The newly transpired, near-surface deposits led Hall and her group to the Southern High Plains spanning parts of Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma. It was there that they recognized calcrete, its first known manifestation in the U.S.

The USGS reports new American uranium potential and a new uranium “species”

Surface showings of yellow finchite might have previously
been mistaken for sulphur, says Van Gosen.
(Photo: Susan Hall/USGS, public domain)

The stuff’s associated with uranium in other countries. Among major calcrete-style deposits listed by the World Nuclear Association are Yeelirrie in Western Australia, along with Trekkopje and Langer Heinrich in Namibia. Yeelirrie is a potential open pit held by a Cameco Corp TSX:CCO subsidiary and averaging 0.16% U3O8. Trekkopje, a potential open pit majority-held by AREVA Resources, averages 0.01%. Langer Heinrich, an open pit mine operated on behalf of Paladin Energy, the majority owner now under administrative control, averages 0.052%.

According to the USGS, grades for potential Southern High Plains deposits range from 0.012% to 0.067%, with a median 0.034% U3O8. Gross tonnage estimates range from 200,000 to 52 million tonnes, with a median 8.4 million tonnes. Together, the region’s calcrete-style potential comes to 39.9 million pounds U3O8.

But that’s a regional assessment, not a resource estimate, reflecting how USGS methodology contrasts with that of exploration companies. The agency uses a three-part approach, explains Mark Mihalasky, who co-ordinated the assessment. The procedure first delineates areas that would allow the occurrence of a particular kind of deposit. Using additional geoscientific evidence, the agency estimates how many deposits might be awaiting discovery. How much those potential deposits hold can be estimated through comparisons with similar known deposits around the world.

Mineral assessment and mineral exploration are two different things…. It’s not a ‘drill here’ assessment.—Mark Mihalasky

“Mineral assessment and mineral exploration are two different things,” Mihalasky emphasizes. “The purpose of our assessment is to help land planners, decision-makers and people in the region get an idea of what could be there, based upon probability. It’s not a ‘drill here’ assessment.

“This whole region is a relatively newly recognized area of potential and while we’re not saying this is a new uranium province we are saying there’s something here that hasn’t been found before in the United States and this might be worth looking into in greater detail if you’re an exploration company.”

Already one company from Australia has been asking “lots of questions,” says Van Gosen. Although most uranium mining in the American west uses in-situ recovery, the shallow depth and soft host rock of the Southern High Plains could present open pit opportunities “assuming uranium prices and other factors are favourable.”

Any positive price assumption will have to wait, however. One week earlier Cameco announced the impending suspension of its high-grade McArthur River mine and Key Lake mill in Saskatchewan’s Athabasca Basin. The company said that long-term contracts had shielded it from uranium’s post-Fukushima plunge of over 70%, but those contracts are now expiring. Cameco had previously suspended its Rabbit Lake mine and reduced production at its American operations.

But while production faces cutbacks, controversy over American dependence on foreign uranium flared up again last month with renewed questions about the sale of Uranium One to Russia’s state-owned Rosatom. The formerly TSX-listed Uranium One holds American resources that could potentially produce up to 1,400 tonnes of uranium annually, according to the WNA. But last year the company’s sole U.S. operation, the Willow Creek ISR mine, produced just 23 tonnes of the country’s total output of 1,126 tonnes.

As the world’s largest consumer of uranium for energy, the U.S. relies on nukes for about 19% of the country’s electricity, according to USGS numbers. Only 11% of last year’s uranium purchases came from domestic sources.

Update: The full USGS report is now available here.

USGS reports new domestic uranium potential and new uranium “species”

November 14th, 2017

This story has been expanded and moved here.

Paved with mineralization

October 27th, 2017

Norman B. Keevil’s memoir retraces Teck’s—and his own—rocky road to success

by Greg Klein

Norman B. Keevil’s memoir retraces Teck’s—and his own—rocky road to success

Profitable right from the beginning, Teck’s Elkview mine “would become
the key chip in the consolidation of the Canadian steelmaking coal industry.”
(Photo: Teck Resources)

 

“We were all young and relatively inexperienced in such matters in those days.”

He was referring to copper futures, a peril then unfamiliar to him. But the remark’s a bit rich for someone who was, at the time he’s writing about, 43 years old and president/CEO of a company that opened four mines in the previous six years. Still, the comment helps relate how Norman B. Keevil enjoyed the opportune experience of maturing professionally along with a company that grew into Canada’s largest diversified miner. Now chairperson of Teck Resources, he’s penned a memoir/corporate history/fly-on-the-wall account that’s a valuable contribution to Canadian business history, not to mention the country’s rich mining lore.

Norman B. Keevil’s memoir retraces Teck’s—and his own—road to success

Norman B. Keevil
(Photo: Teck Resources)

Never Rest on Your Ores: Building a Mining Company, One Stone at a Time follows the progress of a group of people determined to avoid getting mined out or taken out. In addition to geoscientific, engineering and financial expertise, luck accompanies them (much of the time, anyway), as does acumen (again, much of the time anyway).

Teck gains its first foothold as a predecessor company headed by Keevil’s father, Norman Bell Keevil, drills Temagami, a project that came up barren for Anaconda. The new guys hit 28% copper over 17.7 metres. Further drilling leads to the three-sentence feasibility study:

Dr. Keevil: What shall we do about Temagami?

Joe Frantz: Let’s put it into production.

Bill Bergey: Sounds good to me.

They schedule production for two and a half months later.

A few other stories relate a crucial 10 seconds in the Teck-Hughes acquisition, the accidental foray into Saskatchewan oil, the Toronto establishment snubbing Afton because of its VSE listing, an underhanded ultimatum from the British Columbia government, getting out of the oyster business and winning an unheard-of 130% financing for Hemlo.

Readers learn how Murray Pezim out-hustled Robert Friedland. But when it came to Voisey’s, Friedland would play Inco and Falconbridge “as though he were using a Stradivarius.” Keevil describes one guy welching on a deal with the (apparently for him) unarguable excuse that it was only a “gentleman’s agreement.”

Norman B. Keevil’s memoir retraces Teck’s—and his own—rocky road to success

Through it all, Teck gets projects by discovery or acquisition and puts them into production. Crucial to this success was the Teck team, with several people getting honourable mention. The author’s closest accomplice was the late Robert Hallbauer, the former Craigmont pit supervisor whose team “would go on to build more new mines in a shorter time than anyone else had in Canadian history.” Deal-making virtuoso David Thompson also gets frequent mention, with one performance attributed to his “arsenal of patience, knowledge of the opponents, more knowledge of the business than some of them had, and a tad of divide and conquer…”

Partnerships span the spectrum between blessing and curse. International Telephone and Telegraph backs Teck’s first foray into Chile but frustrates its ability to do traditional mining deals. The Elk Valley Coal Partnership puts Teck, a company that reinvests revenue into growth, at odds with the dividend-hungry Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. Working with a Cominco subsidiary, Keevil finds the small-cap explorer compromised by the “ephemeral response of the junior stock market.” And smelters rip off miners. But that doesn’t mean a smelter can’t become a valued partner.

Keevil argues the case for an almost cartel-like level of co-operation among miners. Co-ordinated decisions could avoid surplus production, he maintains. Teck’s consolidation of Canada’s major coal mines helped the industry stand up to Japanese steelmakers, who had united to take advantage of disorganized Canadian suppliers. “Anti-trust laws may be antediluvian,” he states.

Keevil admits some regrets, like missing Golden Giant and a Kazakhstan gold project now valued at $2 billion. The 2008 crash forced Teck to give up Cobre Panama, now “expected to be a US$6 billion copper mine.” Teck settled a coal partnership impasse by buying out the Ontario Teachers’ share for $12 billion. Two months later the 2008 crisis struck. Over two years Teck plunged from $3.6 billion in net cash to $12 billion in net debt.

But he wonders if his own biggest mistake was paying far too much for the remaining 50% of Cominco when an outright purchase might not have been necessary. Keevil attributes the initial 50%, on the other hand, to a miracle of deal-making.

For the most part Keevil ends his account in 2005, when he relinquishes the top job to Don Lindsay. By that time the company had 11 operating mines and a smelting/refining facility at Trail. A short chapter on the following 10 years, among the most volatile since the early ’70s, credits Teck with “a classic recovery story which deserves a full chapter in the next edition of Never Rest on Your Ores.” Such a sequel might come in another 10 years, he suggests.

Let’s hope he writes it, although it’ll be a different kind of book. As chairperson he won’t be as closely involved in the person-to-person, deal-to-deal, mine-to-mine developments that comprise the greatest strength of this book—that and the fact that the author grew with the company as it became Canada’s largest diversified miner.

Meanwhile, maybe Lindsay’s been keeping a diary.

The author’s proceeds go to two organizations that promote mining awareness, MineralsEd and Mining Matters.

Linking the chain

June 9th, 2017

The REE world comes together at the Argus Americas Rare Earths Summit

by Greg Klein

What’s the rarest distinction of rare earths—economic deposits, expertise outside China or public awareness of our dependence on these critical metals? Those are concerns crucial to our society and among topics to be discussed as over 100 industry experts and insiders meet in San Diego from June 12 to 14. The event is the Argus Americas Rare Earths Summit 2017 and, with certain geopolitical circumstances looming in the background, this year’s conference might be especially auspicious.

The REE world comes together at the Argus Americas Rare Earths Summit

The San Diego conference scrutinizes several
rare earths topics from a variety of perspectives.

The gathering brings together end users, miners/processors, researchers/consultants and traders, as well as some investors and U.S. government reps. Topics will include supply and demand, the challenges of building non-Chinese supply chains, new developments in recovery and processing, and the potential for new production outside China.

Japanese and European markets get special attention, as does this continent. The North American session will examine the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency’s analytical techniques, rare earths stockpile and R&D programs. The session will also address Donald Trump’s impact on international trade, as well as the METALS Act, a proposed bill to provide government support for domestic sources of critical minerals.

The fate of that Congressional bill could indicate how well American lawmakers understand American dependence on China—and for minerals essential not only to the economy, medicine and green energy, but also to military defence. Those issues should also be understood by the wider populace, believes keynote speaker David S. Abraham.

Author of The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age, Abraham emphasizes the dubious origins of some necessary commodities, along with their complex and often fragile supply chains.

Companies will be on hand too. Just a few examples include vertically integrated giants Albemarle Corp and Treibacher Industrie, RE supplier HEFA Rare Earth Canada, Burundi miner-to-be Rainbow Rare Earths, along with Canadian advanced-stage RE juniors Matamec Explorations TSXV:MAT and Commerce Resources TSXV:CCE.

Presentations, panels, roundtables and networking—not to mention some conviviality at a brewery tour—portend a valuable three days. This could mark another step towards building vitally important supply chains for vitally important metals. For more information….

Converging on batteries

April 23rd, 2017

Benchmark sees big investors wakening as three huge sectors chase three vital minerals

by Greg Klein

It’s “a sign of the times that big investors with big money are starting to look at this space in a serious way,” Simon Moores declared. “We’re seeing it with lithium, that’s just starting. And I think we’re going to see it with the other raw materials as well.” To that he attributes the automotive, high-tech and energy sectors for their “convergence of three multi-trillion-dollar industries on batteries.”

Addressing a Vancouver audience on the April 21st inaugural stop of the third annual Benchmark Mineral Intelligence World Tour, he pointed out that cobalt and graphite have yet to match lithium for investors’ attention. But not even lithium has drawn the financing needed to maintain supply over the long term.

Benchmark sees investment lagging as three huge sectors chase three vital minerals

While EVs still lead the battery-powered revolution, energy storage
will become more prominent after 2020, according to Simon Moores.

Back in 2006, batteries accounted for 22% of lithium demand. Ten years later the amount came to 42%. “We believe in 2020, 67% of lithium will be used for batteries.”

What’s now driving the battery market, almost literally, is electric vehicles. Energy storage will play a more prominent role from about 2020 onwards, he maintained.

He sees three cars in particular that should lead the trend: Tesla Model 3, Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf. As consumers turn to pure electric vehicles with battery packs increasing capacity to the 60 to 70 kWh range and beyond, the industry will sell “hundreds of thousands of cars rather than tens of thousands… the era of the semi-mass market for EVs is beginning and it’s beginning now, this year.”

Last year’s lithium-ion market reached 70 GWh, Moores said. Forecasts for 2025 range from Bloomberg’s low of about 300 GWh to Goldman Sachs’ 440 GWh and a “pretty bullish” 530 GWh from Cairn Energy Research Advisors. As for Benchmark, “we’re at the lower end” with a base case of about 407 GWh.

“What does that mean for lithium demand? A lot of raw materials will be needed and the investment in that space is just starting.”

Lithium’s 2016 market came to about 80,000 tonnes. By 2020, demand will call for something like 180,000 to 190,000 tonnes. While battery-grade graphite demand amounted to about 100,000 tonnes last year, “by 2020, that will be just over 200,000 tonnes.” As for battery-grade cobalt, last year’s market came to just under 50,000 tonnes. “By 2020 it’s going to need to get to about 80,000 to 85,000.”

Benchmark sees investment lagging as three huge sectors chase three vital minerals

Simon Moores: “No other mineral
out there has this kind of price profile.”

Investment so far favours lithium but for each of the three commodities, it’s “not enough, not for the long term,” he stressed.

Three years ago only two battery megafactories had been envisioned. Now in operation, under construction or being planned are 15, with the number expected to grow. “That’s going to be needed if we’re ever going to get anywhere near the forecast that everyone’s saying. Not just us, not just Bernstein or Goldman Sachs, everyone is saying significant growth is here but investment is needed.”

But although Tesla gets most of the headlines, “the new lithium-ion industry is a China-centric story.” The vast majority of megafactories are Chinese plants or joint ventures with Chinese entities operating in South Korea or Japan. “The majority of their product goes to China.”

At the end of last month lithium carbonate averaged $12,313 a tonne while lithium hydroxide averaged about $17,000. Spot deals in China, meanwhile, have surpassed $20,000.

That compares with prices between 2005 and 2008 of around $4,000 for lithium carbonate and $4,500 for lithium hydroxide. Only slightly higher were averages for 2010 to 2014. But prices spiked in 2015 and 2016. “Between now and 2020 we believe lithium carbonate will be in and around an average of $13,000 a tonne and lithium hydroxide will be closer to $18,000 a tonne.”

Those long-term averages “are important for people building mines and investing in this space.”

Except for 2010, lithium prices have shown 11 years of increases, corresponding with battery demand. “No other mineral out there has this kind of price profile.”

Moores sees no oversupply or price crash for lithium in the next five years. Spodumene-sourced lithium “will fill the short-term supply deficit and brines will help fill the longer-term supply deficit post-2019 and 2020,” he said. “Both are needed to have a strong, balanced industry in the future.”

Turning to graphite, he noted that batteries had zero effect on the market in 2006. By 2016 they accounted for 16% of demand. By 2020, that number should jump to 35%.

While flake graphite comprises the feedstock for most anode material, “really, the price you should look at is spherical graphite.” That’s fallen lately to about $2,800 a tonne.

Moores foresees better margins for companies producing uncoated spherical graphite. “The people who make the coated will also make good margins, but not as good as in the past. For this reason, and because battery buyers are becoming more powerful and there’s more competition in the space, we believe the coated spherical graphite price will actually fall in the long term average, but will still be between $8,000 and $12,000 a tonne. So there’s very high value and significant demand for this material.”

He also sees natural graphite increasing its anode market share over synthetic graphite. “That’s a cost issue primarily, but there are green issues too.”

Silicon, he added, “will play a part in anodes but it will be an additive, not a replacement.”

Speaking with ResourceClips.com after the event, Moores said Benchmark World Tour attendees differ by city. The Vancouver audience reflected the resource sector, as well as fund managers attracted by BMO Capital Markets’ sponsorship. Tokyo and Seoul events draw battery industry reps. Silicon Valley pulls in high-tech boffins.

This year’s tour currently has 15 cities scheduled with two more under consideration, he noted. That compares with eight locations on the first tour in 2015. Moores attributed the success to Benchmark’s access to pricing and other sensitive info, as well as Benchmark’s site visits. “We go to China and other countries and visit the mines,” he said. “Our travel budget is through the roof. We’re not desktop analysts.”