The BBC has dubbed Rhenium — another metal included in the Department of the Interior’s Final List of 35 Minerals Deemed Critical to U.S. National Security and the Economy — a“super element”with standout properties that can be likened to“alien technology.”
Thus, it comes as no surprise that Shane Lasley, writing for North of 60 Mining News, has included Rhenium in his feature series “Critical Minerals Alaska.”
Citing Rhenium’s high resistance to both heat and wear, which makes it a“vital element in superalloys,”Lasley says it’s these properties coupled with extreme scarcity that“helps boost it onto the list of 35.
After outlining the demand scenario for Rhenium based on USGS figures, Lasley zeroes in on the supply side. Porphyry Copper-Molybdenum deposits, from which most Rhenium is derived, tend to be low in concentration, but the“large tonnage mined from this type of deposit makes it possible to recover economically viable quantities of the critical mineral.”
According to Lasley, the Pebble deposit in Alaska holds large amounts of Rhenium and could not only supply significant quantities of Rhenium, but also be“indicative of Alaska’s larger potential for this super alloy metal.” He writes:
“Calculations completed in 2011 estimates the measured and indicated resource contains roughly 0.45 g/t rhenium, which equates to around 2.9 million kilograms, or roughly US$6.4 billion, of the critical superalloy metal.
This is enough rhenium to supply the world’s needs for more than four decades at 2017 consumption levels and does not account for the rhenium contained in the 4.45 billion metric tons of inferred resource outlined at Pebble.”
This, according to USGS,“suggests that there is the potential for significant rhenium resources in undiscovered porphyry copper deposits in Alaska”– good news, given that the U.S. currently imports 80% of the rhenium it requires each year.
As followers of ARPN know, turning that potential into actual production — in the case of rhenium and its fellow “criticals” — will take a policy framework that rewards the risks inherent in resource development.
At ARPN, we have consistently highlighted the importance of Gateway Metals, which are materials that are not only critical to manufacturing and national security in their own right, but also “unlock” tech metals increasingly important to innovation and technological development. With advancements in materials science, these co-products, many of which have unique properties lending themselves to new applications, are quickly becoming building blocks of 21st Century technologies.
Rhenium – a Copper co-product – is a case in point; which is why the BBC has made it the subject of a short yet informative clip as part of its “Secrets of the Super Elements” series. Likening Rhenium’s stand-out properties to “alien technology,” the clip provides a great visual explanation of Rhenium’s heat resistance, which has made it an indispensable component for superalloys used in turbine blades for jet aircraft engines.
“[t]he ability of superalloys to operate at such extreme temperatures is what makes your holiday to the Algarve or Florida affordable.”
Meanwhile, primarily derived as a co-Product of Copper mining, Rhenium is extremely rare, with an average abundance of less than one part per billion in the continental crust.
USGS pegs global Rhenium production at a total of merely 47 metric tons, with more than 80 percent of that amount going into superalloys.
To address supply concerns, users are turning to recycling and substitution, however neither represents a panacea, as a piece in the Economist outlined several years ago:
“General Electric, one of the world’s biggest makers of jet engines, has spent years developing nickel-based superalloys to replace rhenium. But the best GE’s boffins could manage was to reduce the amount of metal required, not eliminate it altogether. Moreover, few manufacturers possess the resources to achieve even such limited progress.”
What does that mean for domestic use and production? According to revised USGS numbers, U.S. import reliance for Rhenium is at 81 percent. As we previously pointed out:
“Because the recovery process is complicated and requires special facilities, we are unlikely to fully meet our demand with domestic resources. However, a strong demand for Rhenium is likely here to stay. That, coupled with the fact that we have proven Rhenium reserves in the U.S. (the development of one of which has been projected to generate more than 20 tons of Rhenium per year as a Copper Co-Product, thus significantly reducing our reliance on foreign imports), should suffice to get policy makers’ attention (…).”
The bottom line: We need to rethink the way we look at some of our old-school mainstay metals, and give the ones that serve as gateway metals – in Rhenium’s case Copper – more thorough consideration. After all, they hold the key to unlocking those “alien technology”“super elements” that keep us safe, afford us everyday convenience, and keep us competitive from an economic perspective.
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