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, however, lie in its usability in the creation of extremely strong heat-tolerant and corrosion resistant aluminum alloys.
Does the name “Scalmalloy” ring a bell?
ARPN followers will recall our discussion of the “Light Rider” – Airbus subsidiary APWorks’s 3D-printed light-weight motorcycle, for which the company used “Scalmalloy” – a Scandium-Aluminum alloy which features “almost the specific strength of titanium.” With the rise of 3D printing and in light of Scandium’s formidable ability to form super-strength alloys with aluminum, there is a good chance that demand for Scandium will increase in the near future.
And that’s the challenge:
According to USGS, world resources are abundant in relation to demand. Scandium is more abundant than lead, mercury and precious metals – but it is rarely concentrated in nature “because of its lack of affinity for the common ore-forming anion.” As a result, commercially viable deposits of Scandium are in fact rare. Because of this low concentration, Scandium is exclusively produced as a co-product during the processing of various Gateway metals, including Tin. Global production rates range from 10 tons to 15 tons per year – and these figures are on the high end of estimates, others peg primary annual production at only 400 kg per year. In total numbers, that is not much material to work with if new uses proliferate.
Thus, not surprisingly, while according to USGS the United States currently does not produce any Scandium, developers of multi-metallic deposits are studying the inclusion of scandium recovery into their project plans. Australia and Japan are also looking into Scandium co-product development. For now, however, the U.S. (in what is already a familiar challenge) has to rely on the main Scandium producers, which at this point in time include China, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine – arguably not our strongest trading partners.
With numerous applications, many of them associated with aluminum alloys, having been filed, Scandium is a metal to watch. What is currently holding the metal back is the lack of a reliable supply. Should that change, it may well take off. As John Kaiser of Kaiser research put it: “This obscure metal is going to go ballistic in the next few years.” As friends of ARPN will appreciate, the question is whether U.S. scandium dependency will deepen — or whether U.S. policymakers will understand that resource development policy is key to American innovators’ access to another critical metal.