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Robust or bust

May 7th, 2020

Will supply chain challenges culminate in a long-overdue crisis?

by Greg Klein | May 7, 2020

It might take premature complacency or enormously good fortune to look back and laugh at the Early 2020 Toilet Paper Panic. But from today’s viewpoint, bumwad might be the least of our worries. There won’t be much need for the stuff without enough food to sustain life. Or water. Medicine, heat and electricity come in handy too.

Sparsely stocked supermarket shelves have been blamed on hoarders who thwart the industry’s just-in-time system, a process credited with “robust” reliability when not challenged by irrational buying sprees. Consumer concern, on the other hand, might be understandable given the credibility of official positions such as Ottawa’s facemask flip-flop and initial arguments that closing borders would actually worsen the pandemic.

Will supply chain challenges culminate in a long-overdue crisis?

A North Vancouver supermarket seen in mid-March. While
stockpiling has abated, supply lines show signs of stress.
(Photo: Steeve Raye/Shutterstock.com)

Meanwhile Canadian farmers worry about the supply of foreign labour needed to harvest crops, dairy farmers dump milk for lack of short-distance transport and deadly coronavirus outbreaks force widespread closures of meat and poultry plants across Canada and the U.S.

Highlighting the latter problem were full-page ads in American newspapers from meat-packing giant Tyson Foods. “The food supply chain is breaking,” the company warned in late April. “Millions of animals—chickens, pigs and cattle—will be depopulated because of the closure of our processing facilities.”

Within days the U.S. invoked the Defense Production Act, ordering meat plants to stay open despite fears of additional outbreaks. 

Just a few other pandemic-related food challenges in Canada include outbreaks at retail grocers, a shortage of packaging for a popular brand of flour and an Ontario supermarket warning customers to throw away bread in case it was tainted by an infected bakery worker.

Infrastructure supplying necessities like energy, fuel, water and communications faces pandemic-related challenges of its own, including availability of labour and expertise.

Supply chain complexity has been scrutinized in The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age. One example from author David S. Abraham was the electric toothbrush, a utensil comprising something like 35 metals that are sourced, refined and used in manufacturing over six continents.

Dissecting a 2017 smartphone, the U.S. Geological Survey found 14 necessary but mostly obscure elements. As a source country, China led the world with nine mineral commodities essential to mobile devices, and that list included rare earths in a single category.

In a recent series of COVID-19 reports on the lithium-ion necessities graphite, cobalt, lithium and nickel, Benchmark Mineral Intelligence stated: “From the raw material foundations of the supply chain in the DRC, Australia, Chile and beyond, through to the battery cell production in China, Japan and Korea, it is likely that the cells used by the Teslas of the world have touched every continent (sometimes multiple times over) before they reach the Model 3 that is driven (or drives itself) off the showroom floor.”

Will supply chain challenges culminate in a long-overdue crisis?

Consumers might not realize the complex
international networks behind staple items.

Or consider something more prosaic—canned tuna.

That favourite of food hoarders might be caught in the mid-Pacific, processed and canned in Thailand following extraction of bauxite (considered a critical mineral in the U.S.) in Australia, China, Guinea or elsewhere, with ore shipped for smelting to places where electricity’s cheap (China accounted for over 56% of global aluminum production last year). Then the aluminum moves on to can manufacturers, and transportation has to be provided between each point and onward to warehouses, retailers and consumers. Additional supply chains provide additional manufactured parts, infrastructure, energy and labour to make each of those processes work.

Still another supply chain produces the can opener.

Daily briefings by Canada’s federal and provincial health czars express hope that this country might “flatten the curve,” a still-unattained goal that would hardly end the pandemic when and if it’s achieved. Meanwhile the virus gains momentum in poorer, more populous and more vulnerable parts of the world and threatens a second, more deadly wave coinciding with flu season.

And if one crisis can trigger another, social order might also be at risk. Canada’s pre-virus blockades demonstrated this country’s powerlessness against a force not of nature but of self-indulgence. Even a cohesive, competent society would have trouble surviving a general infrastructure collapse, a scenario dramatized in William R. Forstchen’s novel One Second After. When transportation, communications, infrastructure and the financial system break down, so do a lot of people. Dangerous enough as individuals, they can form mobs, gangs and cartels.

How seriously Washington considers apocalyptic scenarios isn’t known. But prior to the pandemic, the U.S. had already been taking measures to reduce its dependency on China and other risky sources for critical minerals. Now, Reuters reports, COVID-19 has broadened American concerns to include other supply chains and inspired plans for an Economic Prosperity Network with allied countries. Questions remain about the extent that the West can achieve self-sufficiency and, in the U.S., whether another administration might undo the current president’s efforts.

Certainly globalist confidence persists. The Conference Board of Canada, for example, expects a slow return of supply chain operations to pre-pandemic levels but a renewed international order just the same. “Global co-operation is needed not only to tackle the health crisis, but also to restore trust in global supply chains and maintain the benefits that the growth in global trade has brought over the last two decades.”

Will supply chain challenges culminate in a long-overdue crisis?

New cars leave the manufacturing hub and disease
epicentre of Wuhan prior to the pandemic.
(Photo: humphery/Shutterstock.com)

One early COVID-19 casualty, the multi-continent diamond supply chain, already shows signs of gradual recovery according to Rapaport News. Despite mine suspensions, “there is more than enough rough and polished in the pipeline to satisfy demand as trading centres start to reopen. Belgium and Israel have eased lockdown restrictions, while India has allowed select manufacturing in Surat and special shipments to Hong Kong.”

Also struggling back to its feet is global automotive manufacturing. Writing in Metal Bulletin, Andrea Hotter outlines how the disease epicentre of Wuhan plays a vital role in making cars and supplying components to other factory centres. “If ever there was a masterclass in the need to disaster-proof a supply chain, then the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a harsh reminder to the automotive sector that it’s failing.”

So regardless of whether apocalyptic fears are overblown, there are lessons to be learned. As Benchmark points out, COVID-19 has disrupted “almost every global supply chain to such a profound extent that mechanisms for material sourcing, trade and distribution will likely never be the same again.”

In the meantime, a spare can opener or two might be prudent. Or maybe several, in case they become more valuable than bullion.

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 28 meeting with Lynas.

Update: Following a June 20, 2019, meeting between Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the two leaders “instructed officials to develop a joint action plan on critical minerals collaboration,” according to Reuters.

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.”

Visual Capitalist: China leading the charge for lithium-ion megafactories

February 17th, 2017

by Jeff Desjardins | posted with permission of Visual Capitalist | February 17, 2017

China leading the charge for lithium-ion megafactories

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)
Total 27.9 173.5 100%
United States 1.0 38.0 22%
China 16.4 107.5 62%
Korea 10.5 23.0 13%
Poland 0.0 5.0 3%

Above estimates on battery capacity courtesy of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence.

Posted with permission of Visual Capitalist.

Nuclear power to nearly double by 2040: U.S. Energy Information Administration

May 16th, 2016

by Greg Klein | May 16, 2016

Projected to grow 2.4% annually, nuclear power will remain one of the most important means of generating electricity, says a new report. With last week’s release of International Energy Outlook 2016, the U.S. Energy Information Administration looked at energy markets from 2012 to 2040. Electricity continues to be “the world’s fastest-growing form of end-use energy consumption.”

Nuclear power to nearly double by 2040

The report foresees world net electricity generation increasing 69% by 2040, from 21.6 trillion kilowatt-hours in 2012 to 25.8 trillion kWh in 2020 and 36.5 trillion kWh in 2040.

Renewables will be the fastest-growing source of electricity, with annual increases averaging 2.9%. Natural gas follows with 2.7% a year, then nuclear with 2.4% a year. That increase would almost double nuclear generation from 2.3 trillion kWh in 2012 to 4.5 trillion kWh in 2040.

The EIA sees most of nuclear’s increase coming from emerging countries outside the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The only OECD nation planning a significant increase is South Korea, with an additional 15 GW. Despite that, reductions in Canada, OECD Europe and Japan would cut total OECD nuclear capacity by six GW.

The trend changes radically with non-OECD countries, especially China, India, other Asian economies and the Middle East. The report sees 9.6% average growth in China, adding 139 GW from 2012 to 2040. India would expand by 7.9% for 36 GW. Other non-OECD Asian economies would average 2.9% to add eight GW. Even the oil-rich Middle East would increase nuclear capacity from less than one GW in 2012 to 22 GW in 2030, according to the report.

Uranium prices, however, seem oblivious to such robust projections. At a shareholders meeting last week, Cameco Corp TSX:CCO president/CEO Tim Gitzel bemoaned “levels not seen since 2005.” Having put Rabbit Lake on care and maintenance the previous month, the miner cut its 2016 guidance from 30 million pounds to 25.7 million pounds U3O8.

But noting that the world has more than 60 reactors under construction, Gitzel predicted demand rising about 3% annually, from 170 million pounds this year to 220 million in 2025. “That equates to about three to four more Cigar Lakes being required over those same 10 years—not an easy task, as we know by experience.”

The EIA concedes its projections “are not statements of what will happen, but what might happen given the specific assumptions and methodologies used for any particular scenario.”

Download International Energy Outlook 2016.

March 17th, 2016

The two worlds of precious metals: East and West GoldSeek
Will the diamond price recovery last? NAI 500
The next level of monetary policy: Helicopters dropping money on consumers Equities.com
PDAC 2016: Juniors try different business models to tempt investors Industrial Minerals
Hedge fund chief Warren Irwin’s uranium call and his best metal and oil plays Streetwise Reports
South Korea’s prominence in lithium demand Benchmark Mineral Intelligence
Electric car war sends lithium prices sky high Stockhouse

March 16th, 2016

Will the diamond price recovery last? NAI 500
The next level of monetary policy: Helicopters dropping money on consumers Equities.com
PDAC 2016: Juniors try different business models to tempt investors Industrial Minerals
Hedge fund chief Warren Irwin’s uranium call and his best metal and oil plays Streetwise Reports
And then there was none: Canada sells its gold GoldSeek
South Korea’s prominence in lithium demand Benchmark Mineral Intelligence
Electric car war sends lithium prices sky high Stockhouse

March 15th, 2016

The next level of monetary policy: Helicopters dropping money on consumers Equities.com
PDAC 2016: Juniors try different business models to tempt investors Industrial Minerals
Hedge fund chief Warren Irwin’s uranium call and his best metal and oil plays Streetwise Reports
And then there was none: Canada sells its gold GoldSeek
Five tests for the commodities bounce NAI 500
South Korea’s prominence in lithium demand Benchmark Mineral Intelligence
Electric car war sends lithium prices sky high Stockhouse

March 11th, 2016

PDAC 2016: Juniors try different business models to tempt investors Industrial Minerals
Hedge fund chief Warren Irwin’s uranium call and his best metal and oil plays Streetwise Reports
And then there was none: Canada sells its gold GoldSeek
PDAC 2016 convention exceeds 22,000 attendees Equities.com
Five tests for the commodities bounce NAI 500
South Korea’s prominence in lithium demand Benchmark Mineral Intelligence
Electric car war sends lithium prices sky high Stockhouse

Major car and phone companies might rely on child labour for cobalt: Amnesty International

January 19th, 2016

by Greg Klein | January 19, 2016

Major car and phone companies might rely on child labour for cobalt: Amnesty International

(Graphic: Amnesty International)

 

Children as young as seven in the Democratic Republic of Congo toil in perilous conditions to produce cobalt for lithium-ion batteries, according to an Amnesty International report released January 19. The study casts a pall on companies like Apple, Samsung and Sony which “are failing to do basic checks to ensure that cobalt mined by child labourers has not been used in their products,” the organization alleged.

Child miners work up to 12 hours daily in dangerous conditions, making between $1 and $2 a day, the report states. “In 2014 approximately 40,000 children worked in mines across southern DRC, many of them mining cobalt, according to UNICEF.” Most of the workers lack protective clothing to guard against lung or skin disease.

“It is a major paradox of the digital era that some of the world’s richest, most innovative companies are able to market incredibly sophisticated devices without being required to show where they source raw materials for their components,” said Emmanuel Umpula, executive director of Africa Resources Watch, which collaborated with Amnesty on the report. “The abuses in mines remain out of sight and out of mind because in today’s global marketplace consumers have no idea about the conditions at the mine, factory and assembly line.”

The global cobalt market is unregulated, Amnesty stated, and unlike the DRC’s gold, tantalum, tin and tungsten, cobalt falls outside American conflict minerals rules.

The report charges that Chinese mineral giant Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Ltd and its subsidiary Congo Dongfang Mining “buy cobalt from areas where child labour is rife,” process it and sell it to three battery component manufacturers in China and South Korea. “In turn, they sell to battery makers who claim to supply technology and car companies, including Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, Sony, Daimler and Volkswagen.”

Amnesty said it contacted 16 multinationals listed as customers of the battery manufacturers. “One company admitted the connection, while four were unable to say for certain whether they were buying cobalt from the DRC or Huayou Cobalt. Six said they were investigating the claims. Five denied sourcing cobalt from … Huayou Cobalt, though they are listed as customers in the company documents of battery manufacturers. Two multinationals denied sourcing cobalt from DRC. Crucially, none provided enough details to independently verify where the cobalt in their products came from.”

The DRC produces at least half of the world’s cobalt, with about 20% of the country’s output coming from artisanal mines, Amnesty stated. According to numbers reported in October by Chris Berry, “cobalt demand is growing by 6% overall with demand in the battery supply chain growing by some estimates at a cumulative annual growth rate of 10% out to 2020…. This is driven almost exclusively by cobalt’s use in the cathode of the lithium-ion battery.”

In responses to the CBC, Apple and Sony said they were investigating their sources while Samsung denied doing business with CDM or Huayou Cobalt. Daimler replied, “We neither source from the DRC or the mentioned companies directly.” Volkswagen stated “to our best knowledge” the company doesn’t use cobalt from CDM, Huayou Cobalt or the DRC. “Microsoft said it is unable to confirm ‘with absolute assurance’ if its supply chain is involved,” CBC reported. “LG confirmed that Huayou is one of its suppliers of cobalt” providing material from the Katanga region of the DRC.

In The Elements of Power, a book published late last year, author David S. Abraham and MetalMiner publisher Lisa Reisman stated that long, complex supply lines prevent many major companies from knowing the origin of the minerals they use.

Download the Amnesty International report.