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American Resources Policy Network
Promoting the development of American mineral resources.
  • Through the Gateway: Nickel – “The Metal that Brought You Cheap Flights”

    “It made the age of cheap foreign holidays possible, and for years it was what made margarine spreadable. Nickel may not be the flashiest metal but modern life would be very different without it.” 

    We couldn’t have introduced our next Gateway Metal any better than the BBC did in a feature story on Nickel and its uses last year. Nickel’s alloying properties have indeed transformed our lives – and without them, our best bet for long-distance travel might still be by train or ship.   As the BBC outlines, the first jet engines made of steel in the 1930s and 1940s did not have sufficient heat and corrosion resistance.  With Tungsten too heavy and Copper melting at too low a temperature, Nickel’s (with Chromium mixed in) strength, heat and corrosion resistance, low price point and light weight turned out to be the “Goldilocks recipe.”  And, as the BBC writes:

    Today, the descendants of these early superalloys still provide most of the back end of turbines – both those used on jet planes, and those used in power generation.”

    Other uses, again drawing from Nickel’s alloying capabilities, add to Nickel’s importance:  Monel – a Nickel-Copper alloy, is stronger than steel, malleable and corrosion resistant, and comes at a significantly lower price point than other alloys, making it a material of choice “everywhere where corrosion is a concern – from chemists’ spatulas to the protective coating on bicycle sprockets.”

    Invar – a Nickel-Iron alloy is used in precision instruments and clocks because it has the lowest thermal expansion of metals and alloys. Nitinol, a Nickel-Titanium alloy, is considered a “shape memory alloy” – a material that “remembers” their original shape.  The BBC story has a fascinating clip demonstrating Nitinol’s memory, the composition of which can be tuned. This lends itself to applications in medicine, for example, where a rolled up Nitinol stent can be inserted into a blood vessel, and allow blood to flow through it once the body’s temperature prompts the stent to open itself out. Nitinol is also used in military, robotics and safety applications.

    Suffice it to say that Nickel is a material that is here to stay. When factoring in Nickel’s Gateway Metal status, yielding access to materials like Cobalt, Palladium, Rhodium and Scandium (which we’ve discussed a fair amount because of its application in 3D printing technology), its importance only increases.

    Meanwhile, USGS has revised its Nickel supply assessment in recent years. While previous year reports showed no domestic reserves for Nickel, reserves today are pegged at 160,000 metric tons – and one active new Nickel mine in Michigan produced 26,500 metric tons of concentrates for export to Canadian and overseas smelters.   Our net import reliance for Nickel is 37 percent, and new projects in varying stages of development in Minnesota may further reduce our dependence on foreign supplies of Nickel.

    This is a promising development, however to ensure a steady and stable supply of mineral resources fueling 21st Century technologies for our domestic industries, policy makers would be well advised to look at Nickel – and all other Gateway Metals and their Co-Products more comprehensively.

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  • Through the Gateway: “Fairy Dust” Supply Woes Loom

    As we continue our look Through the Gateway, comes a stern reminder by way of Canada that the geopolitics of resource supply represents a complex issue warranting comprehensive policy approaches.  

    And it literally concerns a metal that touches us — more precisely, we touch it — every day, too many times to count.

    decision to close metallurgical operations at the Kidd Creek Copper-Zinc-Silver deposit in Ontario, Canada, will effectively remove more than ten metric tons of Indium – a co-product metal the Gateway Metals to which include Zinc and Tin – from the global market.   As MetalBulletin points out, the mine is not closing per se, but concentrates from the mine will be taken to a different smelter without Indium processing capabilities, meaning the Indium is effectively going to be lost.

    While ten metric tons does not sound like much, this is significant, as we’re talking about Indium here, which is one of the rarer tech co-product metals. USGS pegs total global refinery production of Indium at 755 metric tons in 2015.  With the United States not producing any Indium – making us 100% import-dependent — and Canada – which is our biggest supplier of Indium – accounting for 66 metric tons, removing more than ten metric tons from the global market is a big deal just in terms of numbers.

    But why is this relevant? Aside from being a key component for the construction of CIGS (i.e. Copper, Indium, Gallium, Selenide solar panels) Indium happens to be the “fairy dust” that turns a regular computer, tablet or smart phone screen into a touch screen.   The majority of newer smart phone and tablet makers have turned to ITO (Indium Tin Oxide) to form the conductive layer, which is used to monitor changes in electrical state as you touch and swipe the screen.” AZoMaterials has a great write-up and quick video explaining the technology.

    Rumors that new IGZO (Indium, Gallium, Zinc Oxide) semiconductor technology has found its way into the displays of the just-released iPhone 7 (we discussed this a few weeks ago here  have not yet been confirmed, but the bottom line is that Indium is one of the tech metals that is growing in importance. 

    Last year, the United States consumed 124 metric tons of refined Indium. With Canada removing a significant percentage of Indium from the global market, the United States may now be forced to turn to China to meet demand even more than before – a daunting proposition. 

    Meanwhile, there is a serious disconnect with regards to resource policy.  Most policy makers – and candidates for political office for that matter – fail to connect the dots – everyone is in favor of strengthening our manufacturing base, but they fail to acknowledge that we need “stuff” to make “stuff.”  Maybe if their touchscreens stopped working all of a sudden they’d get the memo, and would focus on devising a comprehensive mineral resource strategy.  Word of a potential Indium shortage may cause our eyes to glaze over — but if we lose touch with our touch-screens, maybe then we’ll get a feel for the role co-product metals play in our 21st Century lives.

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  • Through the Gateway: A Look at Cadmium

    Most of us have heard of Cadmium as a component of NiCd (Nickel-Cadmium) batteries.  To date, this also happens to be the most frequent use for the metal, accounting for about 85% of the Cadmium consumed globally in 2015. A silvery metal with a bluish surface tinge, Cadmium is corrosion-resistant and its oxides are insoluble in water.  Nearly [...]
  • Through the Gateway: Germanium – Semiconductor of the Future?

    Our first Zinc co-product, Germanium, is a silvery metalloid.  According to USGS, “in nature, it never exists as the native metal in nature” and “is rarely found in commercial quantities in the few minerals in which it is an essential component.” That said, the “most commercially important germanium-bearing ore deposits are zinc or lead-zinc deposits formed at low temperature.” Discovered [...]
  • A Look at Gateway Metal Import Dependence: Copper – 25 Years of Rising Dependence

    If our trip Through the Gateway holds one lesson so far, it’s that old patterns and paradigms are out the window.  Advances in technology and materials sciences have changed the applications for many mainstay metals and are fueling demand.   As we have outlined, the same applies for numerous rare tech metals, which are primarily sourced [...]
  • Through the Gateway: Of Diaper Rash Cream, Fertilizer and Battery Technology – A Look at Zinc

    If you’re a parent of young children, you’ll probably appreciate Zinc for its medicinal properties – a good diaper rash cream or sunscreen for the little ones comes with a good dose of Zinc oxide. Otherwise, you may have come across this metal primarily as an anti-corrosion agent used to prevent metals like steel and iron from [...]
  • Through the Gateway: Tin, Co-Products and Shifting Paradigms

    While not as flashy as some other metals, Tin’s versatility will continue to drive demand.  We are familiar with its use in food preservation.  Meanwhile, ITRI, the tin industry’s UK-based trade association, highlights the “storage, generation and conservation of energy as key drivers for new applications for the metal over the next 3 to 30 years.” Coupled with its [...]
  • Through the Gateway – Scandium: A Co-Product Metal Ready To Take Off

    We have already established that Indium is becoming a hot tech commodity. Its fellow Tin co-product Scandium is another metal with huge potential in high-tech applications. Its electrical and heat resistant properties lend itself to the application in solid oxide fuel cells, and its optical properties can be used for high-intensity lamps.  The biggest opportunities for Scandium, [...]
  • Through the Gateway: Vanadium – Next-Gen Uses Drive Co-Product Challenge

    As we continue our look “Through the Gateway,” one thing has become abundantly clear already:  Beyond their traditional uses, both Gateway Metals and their Co-Products have become building blocks of our renewable energy future.  This held true for Copper and its Co-Products, but it is also equally true for Aluminum and its Co-Products. While Gallium’s [...]
  • Through the Gateway: Of Pokémon and Co-Products – A Look at Gallium

    All over the world, people are wandering through the streets staring at their smartphones. Whether you’re part of the PokémonGo phenomenon that has taken the world by storm, or whether you can only shake your head, you don’t only have Nintendo to thank for.    One of the Co-Product Metals we’re focusing on this week as part of [...]

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