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Scandium – Ready to “Take Off”?

Remember the Light Rider?  A few months ago, we highlighted this high-tech motorcycle, which, because it is held together by an intricate web of “Scalmalloy,” is perhaps the lightest motorcycle in the world. Scalmalloy is an “aluminum alloy powder ‘with almost the specific strength of titanium’ [used] to build incredible structures by fusing thin layers of the material together.” One of its key components is Scandium – which explains the first syllable of its somewhat curious name, Aluminum being the middle-portion, with the “M” standing for Magnesium.

It is new applications like these that are making Scandium an increasingly indispensable tech metal, particularly in the context of the lightweighting revolution – a development marked by the “growing imperative to lightweight transportation, buildings, and infrastructure systems.” 

Scandium gives superplasticity to Aluminum alloys, making them more resistant to strain and bending forces, increasing the alloy’s welding capability, and allowing for the usage of replacing heavier metals with lighter-weight materials like Aluminum.  Aircraft manufacturers have long been interested in Scandium and Scandium-alloyed Aluminum materials because use of Aluminium-Scandium alloys has helped reduce aircraft weights by 15% to 20%, without compromising the strength of the building material.

It’s a lesson learned long ago by the Soviet Union – whose MIG fighter series was — and in the Russian era, still is – dependent on Scandium, which the Soviets had and the West lacked.  So the geopolitics of Scandium supply is an old story, setting up for a new chapter in our tech-driven 21st Century.  (Add in the need for a reliable refined Aluminum supply, including smelting, which these days depends heavily on Canadian facilities, and it’s clear our supply chain dependencies are interlaced – but that’s a post for another day.)

In the form of Scalmalloy, with its potential to ultimately help reduce emissions, industry insiders believe the lightweighting revolution will quickly expand from the transportation sector to infrastructure projects.  For Scandium, some expect demand to soar as high as by 800% over the next decade.

However, there are challenges. A recent post on Investor Intel explains:

“The problem the aircraft manufacturers face in adoption of Scandium alloys en masse is not one of price or desirability[-] it is of supply. With no primary mines and no sizeable supply[,] there could at some point be an absolute absence of Scandium supply for either competition reasons or geopolitical considerations.”

Indeed, as we have previously pointed out:

While on paper, Scandium resources may in fact be abundant, it is rarely concentrated in nature, making commercially viable deposits extremely rare. Because it is at present largely recovered as a co-product during the processing of various Gateway Metals, including Tin and Nickel, total global production rates are quite low (see our previous post).  Scandium may also be present in certain Copper and Rare Earth deposits.”

In order to meet this anticipated jump in demand, several mining companies – most recently in Russia and Australia – have begun exploring the possibility of primary Scandium recovery.  In the U.S., which is currently 100% import dependent to meet our domestic Scandium needs and has to rely on China and Russia, developers of multi-metallic deposits are also studying the inclusion of scandium recovery into their project plans.

The potential for Scandium to “take off” is clearly there. However, for this to happen, Investor Intel’s Christopher Ecclestone cautions that supply has to be secured first:

“It is clear that the industry wants to apply the benefits that Scandium brings but it is not going to go out on the limb and hope that the adage ‘Build it and they will supply us’ proves to be true. As we all know that train is heading down the track fullspeed towards Tesla that has foolishly failed to secure its supply of Cobalt and Lithium for the future. The likes of Boeing and Airbus are not so naïve.

Thus when a significant supply of Scandium is guaranteed then the synergies between aeronautics and Scandium mining will come into play and the uptake of product will be potentially enormous.”

 Change cannot happen overnight – particularly in a regulatory environment that does not favor resource development.  From a U.S. perspective, much will depend on whether domestic stakeholders are able to improve our policy framework to unleash our own resource potential.