Returning to the Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Strategy report

In December of 2010, the Department of Energy released the first of its “Critical Materials” reports, which summarize the DoE’s view of the short and longer term challenges to global supplies and American access to sixteen elements deemed essential to high technology and the production of advanced manufactures. These elements include the most critical of the rare earth elements (HREEs specifically) and certain other metals in which the supply streams feeding American industry are judged to be particularly fragile. This article will point out the highlights and summarize the updated Critical Metals report, which was released three days ago. I also editorialize where doing so seems appropriate.

Before moving on, it is worth noting that only a year has passed since the release of the first Critical Materials report. By the standard of government commissions, this publication speed is incredible. Many commentators of the financial and extractive industries have noted how vulnerable the American economy is to interruptions of supplies of many raw materials. Oil is only the start of an extensive laundry list of supply stream weaknesses that have alarmed policymakers throughout the past year as the extent of the resource stream weaknesses became more broadly known. Several legislative acts have been proposed to deal with this problem, primarily Senator Lisa Murkowski’s (R-AK) S. 1113 proposal and representative Mike Coffman’s (R-CO) H.R. 2184, the RESTART Act. Both were proposed this year in order to create a task force consisting of the Secretaries of State, Energy, the Interior, Agriculture, Defense, Commerce, and other persons deemed appropriate for inclusion. This task force would review laws and regulations that discourage domestic rare-earths mining and research, speed up permitting and lighten regulatory burdens, and provide rare earth miners with necessary contacts via networking and provide other information. Both bills are currently tied up in committee.

Summarizing the Report:

Highlights: Chapters 1-5

  • The demand for critical materials has in almost all cases grown more quickly than the demand for steel (~8% per annum).
  • Global supplies, of REEs especially, have been slow to respond to price increases because of long development times for new projects, lack of capital (symptomatic of how small the market size for these materials are, hence Wall Street’s relative ignorance to these opportunities), trade barriers and other factors. Supply pressure is expected in several HREEs through the remainder of the decade, while LREEs are not anticipated to have supply problems.
  • Lighting efficiency standards that are now coming into effect around the world (2012 in the U.S.) are going to cause especially fragile supplies of the HREEs used in efficient lighting, the HREEs being europium, terbium, and yttrium.
  • The DoE does not expect supply concerns in LREEs (lanthanum and cerium in particular) to last for much longer. In particular, the DoE does not expect supply concerns in LREEs used in “cracking” the heavier molecules in crude oil into lighter molecules that mostly compose fuels like gasoline and jet fuel, to be significant forward-going problems. Refiners have months of cracking material on hand, and have been taking successful steps to significantly reduce the amount of REEs used in these materials.
  • The wind turbine industry is shifting towards the use of much larger and more powerful turbines produced in prior years. These larger, slower, but more productive turbines are projected to use several hundred kilograms of rare earths (mostly HREEs) per turbine in permanent electro-magnets (PEMs). Given the growth of wind energy, this factor is highly bullish for near-term HREE projects like Great Western Minerals’ Steenkampskraal resource.
  • Organizations the world over are acting to reduce the amount of dysprosium used in PEMs. Dysprosium is used to increase the Curie Temperature of PEMs (the temperature at which PEMs demagnetize).
  • Lithium-ion batteries do not use REEs, but do use other critical materials like cobalt, manganese, nickel, and graphite (the latter of which was not listed by the DoE as a critical material, but really, really should have been). Further link.
  • The world is not running out of minerals. There is no imminent “peak” in the production of any mineral resource the DoE analyzed. But, costs are generally increasing as the more easily exploited resources are exhausted.
  • 60% of the costs of finished rare earth oxides derive from the separation and processing steps, rather than costs directly associated with mining. The capital expenditures to bring a mine online (ranging from $100M for brownfield mines to $1B for greenfield mines) represent a significant barrier to entry for would-be producers that need to develop capital (roads, plumbing, electricity, etc.) in addition to mining facilities. This is not good news for rare earth projects that are coming online years down the road, or in other words, 90%+ of ‘rare earth’ companies. The rewards of the rare metals market will go to those companies that are in production in the near term, like Molycorp and Great Western.
  • Nearly all of the intellectual capital associated with the rare earth elements lives in China. Where the number of people holding college degrees who work in rare earths in the U.S. is in the low hundreds (~200), in China this population number is over 65,000. Various universities in the U.S., however, are receiving government grant funding and are working forwards expanding their rare-earths research programs. The lack of an adequate workforce is a significant barrier to the establishment of domestic REE supply chains.
  • Demand for rare earths is projected to increase from its current levels at a compound annual growth rate of 3.6% from 2010–2020, and at a compound annual growth rate of 2.9% from 2021–2025.
  • Price volatility in the rare earths has led to hoarding by industrial consumers, and has reduced the average contract length for supplies from one to five years to an average of three months – or pervasive de facto spot price transactions.
  • The report summarizes the critical materials policies of other world powers.
    • The Chinese government is struggling to stop illegal smuggling, but is successfully consolidating the industry, thereby reducing total production. The Chinese government has successfully captured a great deal of global manufacture of finished rare-earth products through its export quotas and taxes (export taxes average at 15%-25% depending on the specific metal), which all but force producers of PEMs and other applications to construct their plants in mainland China, thereby gaining access to inputs at lower costs. 76% of REE PEMs are now produced within China’s borders. Baotou Steel and Iron Group intends to stockpile 300,000 tons of REOs by 2016 (compare to current Chinese annual foreign exports of REOs, which are about 30,000 tons. Also note the contrast to total global production, which was 105,800 tons in 2010).
  • The European Union released in 2010 its own critical materials report, covering 41 separate mineral resources of concern. The study is very much worth reading for any investor in the critical materials. The policy proposals are limited in scope, generally dealing with proposals for increased co-operation by EU members on resource and recycling policy. The research is however highly useful.
  • Britain is also researching the fragility of its economy to resource dependency. Not surprisingly, REEs, platinum-group-elements, graphite, antimony, and other technology or specialty ferrous metals are near or at the top of their criticality list.
  • The Japanese government is very pro-active in dealing with resource supply stream weaknesses, a reflection of that nation’s dearth of domestic mineral resources. The Japanese government authorized JOGMEC (Japan Oil, Gas, and Metals Corporation, a government entity that has traditionally provided financing and loan guarantees to aid large Japanese corporations in establishing reliable hydrocarbon supplies) to extend its financing to ventures in metals and mining in the form of loan guarantees and direct equity investments. JOGMEC also collects data on Japanese resource consumption, maintains resource stockpiles, and provides scientific funding to universities and corporations in order to further develop new and more efficient uses for resources. Japan committed $650M in fiscal 2011 to alleviate supply pressures associated with critical materials, including REEs, and has set aside $1.3 billion in total to alleviate Japanese vulnerability to the rare-earths market (contrast that to the total size of the REE market, which was roughly $3 billion in 2010).

Japan is making significant progress in reducing REE consumption, having for example reduced new cerium consumption by 50% through recycling and substitution. Note that this figure applies to the entire nation’s consumption of cerium.

  • I would also point the reader towards Nouriel Roubini’s excellent ’09 article in Forbes regarding the rise of resource nationalism. Given depletion dynamics in certain key commodities and price increases in the commodities complex as a whole, it is inevitable that state authorities the world over will be inserting themselves more deeply into resources and the policies and production thereof. Resource nationalism is more a matter of when than if, a trend that the DoE did not address in the depth that the subject demands.

Specific critical materials of potential investment concern:

  • Lithium: The Doe expects significant supply and demand variance in lithium, albeit in the 2016-2020 timeframe depending on the strength of demand. The DoE has for all concerned minerals graphs constructed varying ‘scenarios’ of supply and demand that for the most part depend on the penetration rates of new technologies such as electric vehicles, larger wind turbines, and REE electromagnets. These scenarios, or ‘trajectories’ point out the timeframe in which the DoE expects demand to overtake supply, if at all, for the various critical materials.
  • Manganese dioxide: In manganese dioxide, which is primarily used for the production of dry-cell batteries (not lithium-ion batteries), and to a lesser extent as a pigment in paints and ceramics, the DoE expects significant variances of supply and demand. Current production of manganese dioxide, currently 790,000 tons annually, is expected to by 2015 only increase by 50,000 tons per year. This could be highly problematic for producers of dry-cell batteries, but at the same time, quite bullish for producers of EMD.

  • Electrolytic manganese: Oddly, the DoE did not address supply fragility in high-purity manganese. China possesses a 97.9% global monopoly over this market, with the remainder coming from one South African company. The EMM market has grown at an average page of 26% per year for the past five years. EMM is essential to the production of high quality steels and lithium-ion batteries. . The CPM Group has recently released a very interesting report on the electrolytic manganese (99%+ purity) market. CPM Group expects supply capacity strains in EMM as well, resulting in an average price through the coming decade far above current and past prices. Chinese manganese production is expected to fall by a third to a half in the next three to five years. The effects on exports are a matter of conjecture. China currently places a 17% VAT tax on input costs and 20% export tax for all manganese products that are exported abroad. The U.S. furthermore places a 14% import tariff on manganese products. The U.S. is 100% reliant on imports of manganese. It is quite possible that electrolytic manganese could be subject to a supply panic in the near term, like what occurred in the rare earth metals market. This would be highly bullish for American Manganese, a Canadian company working to develop its massive placer resource in Mojave county, Arizona. If AMY comes into production, it will be by far the lowest cost producer of high-purity manganese in the world, and would evade both Chinese and American import/export duties. In my opinion, EMM should have been near the top of any comprehensive critical materials report. The exclusion of EMM, graphite, platinum-group elements, and other technology metals were highly conspicuous absences in this DoE report.
  • Neodymium: In neodymium, the DoE expects supply to stay ahead of demand in the medium term except if the penetration rate of new clean energy technologies are at the upper end of demand estimates. If these estimates turn out to be accurate, significant new supplies will be required after 2015-2018, beyond even what Molycorp and Lynas are capable of bringing to market.

  • Dysprosium: In dysprosium, the DoE expects little possibility of supply catching up to demand in the near or the long term, barring significant R&D breakthroughs that greatly reduce the input intensity of this metal. This is quite bullish for HREE miners, as the sheer extent of the expected supply and demand variance of this metal seems to ensure that HREE miners can ‘name their price’ at will.

With that being said, dysprosium is one rare earth element above all others in which the industry is trying to engineer lower input intensity (amount of dysprosium per completed finished good). Ames Laboratory (the original entity that engineered REE applications such as permanent electromagnets  in the first place, in response to a 1970s cobalt supply crisis), Molycorp, and multiple Japanese multinationals are expending considerable money and talent in an effort to engineer magnet technologies that require much less or no dysprosium. They are doing this because the spot cost of dysprosium has been highly damaging to the profitability of product lines that require much of this metal, and because industrial consumers see no relief on the horizon. It is a matter of sheer speculation as to whether or not breakthroughs come through in the near term, but it is important to keep in mind the sheer effort regarding rare earth innovation occurring worldwide at this very moment.

The DoE report covers several other materials, but barring highly specialized investment strategies, few of these materials appear to be exploitable by investors barring physical delivery.

Other graphs:

This chart shows the demand growth of critical materials versus that of the reigning metals benchmark, iron & steel.

This graph shows changes of ‘criticality’ in this new DoE report versus the department’s perceived criticality state of the same materials one year ago.

These graphs respectively show the criticality of materials that the DoE covered in the short and in the medium term.

Chapter 6: Summary & Highlights:

This final chapter summarizes the DoE’s efforts, primarily pursued through co-operative efforts with other institutions and through R&D initiatives/grant funding to reduce pressure in the rare-earths market. The DoE is pursuing some highly interesting innovations, but results are yet forthcoming. Those interested in the science of the rare earth elements should probably read this section in full, because the DoE is funding and promoting some highly interesting research, through it looks like none of the research will have a near term effect on the rare earths/critical materials markets.

Appendix: A: In this section, the DoE provides detailed criticality assessments for every element of concern in the report. I highly suggest that the reader read this section in full. Summarizing this appendix would take many pages.

Appendix B: I highly suggest also examining this section in full. Here the DoE summarizes the relative and absolute amounts of elemental inputs that make up the various types of nickel-hydride and lithium-ion batteries, lighting bulbs, and wind turbines. This section is very interesting. For example, in electric vehicle batteries of the type the DoE analyzed, manganese makes up 57% of the total weight of the battery, nickel, 29%, while lithium only composes 7.9% of the battery. These relative compositions are identical for hybrid-electric-vehicles and plug-in hybrid vehicles.

Appendix C: I would also suggest examining this section in full. Here the DoE summarizes the details and state of progression of all pending legislation that would affect the rare earth elements market and that of other critical materials. Proposed legislative measures would provide $70M in loan guarantees to innovators in downstream rare-earths research, mandate the Department of the Interior to conduct comprehensive surveys of domestic rare-earths mining potential, establish a government stockpile of rare-earth electromagnets, conduct broader surveys of the mining potential of all domestic non-energy mineral resources, mandate DoE grants for other innovative and recycling initiatives, and provide $10M of grant funding per year to lithium-ion innovators.

This appendix concludes with three pages that summarize Senator Lisa Murkowski’s  (R-AK)Critical Material’s Policy Act of 2011. Murkowski’s legislation covers a broad range of territory, allocating roughly $40M to see the proposals through. This legislation is a credit to Senator Murkowski’s understanding of the resource limitations that will strain this nation and the world at large. Significant highlights include loan guarantees for critical metals innovation, mandating the Department of the Interior to publish an “Annual Critical Metals Outlook” report, which would feature the results of surveys of the critical metals, discussing the particulars of the supply, demand, and innovation concerning every single element. The legislation also features grant funding for universities that research critical materials innovation, and mandates the Department of Energy to prepare a comprehensive report on the viability and path to thorium-based nuclear energy.

Appendix D:

This section of the report summarizes the October 2011 Conference on Critical Metals for a Clean Energy Future, which had dozens of very high-profile materials scientists and politicians as speakers and attendees. The conference was jointly organized by the Department of Energy, the European Commission, and the Government of Japan.

Appendix E:

Here the DoE summarizes the activities of its Advanced Research Projects Agency where those activities concerned critical materials. The DoE has been provided nearly $80M of grant funding to develop early stage technologies that reduce or eliminate dependence on critical materials.  This funding has gone to universities, startups, and established corporations such as GE.

Concluding thoughts:

To investors and keen observers of the critical materials, most of what the DoE reported is already known. However, within the details some extremely interesting data cropped up which I have not seen reported elsewhere, hence why I decided that a summarization of this Report would be a worthwhile undertaking. However, the DoE’s exclusion of other non-elemental materials, like electrolytic manganese and graphite, is a highly conspicuous weakness in the thoroughness of the DoE’s report. The mineral and energy authorities of other nations have not, at all, restricted their analysis to narrow degrees as the DoE did. To conclude this article, I’m attaching the European Commission’s criticality matrix of the 41 materials the EU covered. It is my opinion that the European Commission did a much more thorough job in their research and analysis of the critical materials. I’m also attaching the Department of Defense’s survey as of 2010 of net import reliance of critical materials, a survey that is much more comprehensive than that which the DoE offered.


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