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Materials Science Revolution Continues to Yield Breakthroughs – a Look at Scandium

Did you turn on the TV to watch the SpaceX Crew Dragon take off en route to the International Space Station yesterday only to be disappointed?  The long-awaited historic first launch of American astronauts from U.S. soil in nearly nine years has been postponed due to weather, but there’s a still good chance we will see history unfold before our eyes in a few days, as a commercial spacecraft is transporting NASA astronauts into orbit in the very near future. 

Why are we talking about space other than the fact that the focus on SpaceX is giving us a short, but much-needed break from the ever-consuming coverage of the coronavirus pandemic?

As followers of ARPN will know, aeronautics is a field in which we owe many breakthroughs in recent history to metals, minerals, and the materials science revolution.

Scandium is a case in point.  Dubbed the “super metal that the aerospace and electric vehicle industries dream of” because of its alloying capabilities that promote lightweight, strength and corrosion resistance, it has become an indispensable tech metal, particularly in the context of the ongoing lightweighting revolution. 

Aluminum-Scandium alloys have helped reduce aircraft weights by 15% to 20%, without compromising the strength of the building material.   3D-printed Scandium and Aluminum-based high-performance alloys may become even more relevant as the U.S. government embarks on a path to create a U.S. Space Force, and a successful launch of the SpaceX Crew Dragon may further increase demand for hi-tech metals like Scandium.

While all systems may be go for Scandium demand to take off, the supply side has been challenging. 

As we  outlined a few years ago:

“[W]hile 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.  Scandium may also be present in certain Copper and Rare Earth deposits.”

To date, the U.S. has been 100% import-dependent to meet our domestic Scandium needs and has had to rely on China and Russia — arguably not our most reliable trading partners — to meet demand. In recent years, with demand forecasts for Scandium on the upswing,  mining companies have begun exploring the possibility of primary Scandium recovery and researchers — on behalf of developers of multi-metallic deposits began studying the inclusion of scandium recovery into their project plans.

And while the launch of SpaceX has to be postponed, news of a breakthrough with potential to change the Scandium supply picture arrived today.  

As Reuters reports, researchers at Rio Tinto have developed process to extract scandium from waste tailings in the titanium dioxide production process in one of its production facilities in Quebec, Canada.

The company had previously joined forces with the Critical Materials Institute (CMI), a U.S. Department of Energy research hub, to study new ways to capture Gateway Metals and Co-products that are increasingly becoming indispensable in clean power manufacturing — an endeavor we highlighted in the context of our “Profiles of Progress” series highlighting public-private partnerships proving to be valuable tools in the effort to alleviate supply risks for critical raw materials.