Strategic Metals: Where To Dig For Information Sources & Resources

February 29, 2012

We offer insight into where to find vital information on under-the-radar commodities of strategic metals and rare earth elements.

 

 

Some words of warning right at the very beginning: Unlike with the base metals, current, proven and complete data and information on the strategic metals are often extremely difficult to find.

As Professor Thomas Graedel (among other things, the leading light in the methodology of metal criticality determination) and his colleagues at the Center for Industrial Ecology, School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale University say (with stunning understatement) in a recent paper in Environmental Science & Technology: “For many of the geologically scarcer “specialty” metals, data are in short supply.” And they should know!

This is a situation faced not by academics alone; government, too, faces a similar problem. In both its Critical Materials Strategy documents, the U.S. Department of Energy refers to the issue of collecting data and the importance of both reliability and transparency.

So, where do you start? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff? And how do you distinguish information from disinformation?

For all investors interested in strategic metals (either physicals or, by proxy, the companies that mine, process and produce the metals), whether they be rare earths, or any other metals vital for technology, defense and green energy etc., these three questions are vitally important. (And, indeed, likewise, they are as important for those involved in making policy covering such resources.)

 

So, Where Do You Start?

As good a place as any is with some knowledge and understanding of the metals themselves. While the likes of Wikipedia, and any of the minerals/elements sites, will all provide useful background covering the basic facts, some of the most useful information on the different metals, and their places in our world today, is to be found at the sites of the many associations involved either in the individual, or appropriate groupings of, metals themselves.

For those interested in just the metals, such sites can often provide not only useful facts and figures, but also the latest news on current and possible future uses, research and development. And for those with more interest in the companies involved in the metals, a scan of the associations’ memberships lists is always useful to give you an idea of who is active in the field — whether private or public companies.

The first association site to start at is that of the Minor Metals Trade Association, based in London. This site pretty much covers all the strategic metals and has some pretty useful background information (a good place to start from) on each of the metals.

(Just click on the header Minor Metal in the Periodic Table on the home page and, for each metal, look at the box in the bottom right-hand corner titled Economics and Facts. There are usually some useful pieces there, including most of HardAssetsInvestor.com’s articles on individual metals.)

Some of the sites of associations concerned with specific metals are:

 

 

 

For those metals with just one or two significant uses — for example, vanadium in steel — following the metals “downstream” also on such sites, can be extremely helpful. In the instances of vanadium and niobium, two relevant sites are the World Steel Association and the Stainless Steel Information Center.

Finally, for data on such things as domestic consumption and/or production of different metals — where such an organization exists — a country’s geological survey can be very helpful. Often, though, where the country’s language is not English, it is unusual to find its survey’s site in anything other than the local language(s).

These surveys’ sites include:

 

And a comprehensive list (although not quite up-to-date) of surveys worldwide (both national and regional) can be found on the site of the University of Mainz in Germany.

Among their various publications, the USGS produces its annual, and very useful, “Mineral Commodity Summaries” and “Commodities Yearbooks,” the only trouble being that these are usually quite out of date when they are eventually published. And the BGS produces its “World Mineral Production” volumes, summarizing production over rolling five-year periods — the last one covering 2006-2010.

 

 

How Do You Separate The Wheat From The Chaff?

For those countries with command economies such as China, very often the data are either unavailable, or to be treated with varying degrees of skepticism.

For other countries, often data are provided to surveys on a purely voluntary basis by way of questionnaires as, for example, in the case of the USGS. In various instances, this can lead to difficulties. Two such are when the number of respondents cannot be taken as representative, and the survey is forced to project, say, total production, and when there are only one or two producers and any publication of their production figures would damage their business. (See the latest Mineral Commodities Summaries for either selenium, or zirconium and hafnium for instances of this.)

Other difficulties can arise when data are not sufficiently disaggregated — often because classification systems (for example, NAICS — the North American Industry Classification System) do not provide the required degree of granularity. As the U.S. Department of Energy notes: “Thus, for example, rare earth mining does not have its own figures and is instead a subset of ‘all other metal ore mining.’” or when sufficient distinctions may not exist within certain categories, for example, that of scrap: when scrap for a particular metal is “new” or “old” or, indeed, “scrap.”

As a general rule, always take time to read not only the notes accompanying each report, summary, etc., you look at, but also appendices covering such issues as sources of information, definitions and methodology. These will all be very important.

That said, unless you are in the forecasting business yourself and comfortable with your own expertise, the likes of the USGS are probably in a better position than most of us to come up with entirely credible projections based on the data they have.

 

How Do You Distinguish Information From Disinformation?

Some of the most useful information sources, where they are available, are the policy, strategy and research documents prepared by, or for, governments, government agencies and research institutes.

In the U.S., these include the last two years’ Critical Materials Strategy documents from the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), the background materials, and report to Congress, on the country’s Defense National Stockpile, various GAO reports (including that on rare earths) and the publications from the National Research Council. In nearly all these, the appendices, footnotes and endnotes are a cornucopia of sources and resources, and well worth careful perusal.

In the U.K., for example, a report such as its Environmental Agency’s European Pathway to Zero Waste’s “Study into the feasibility of protecting and recovering critical raw materials through infrastructure development in the south east of England” is full of useful data, information and projections covering strategic metals.

And, where you can get hold of them, policy documents covering countries’ strategic defense stockpiles are always useful. (However, it often takes a deal of work digging out what you want.)

Supranational and international bodies can also constitute excellent resources. The UNEP’s International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management is in the process of publishing a number of important reports covering metals (including some strategic metals).

To date, these are: Recycling rates of metals and Metal stocks in society: scientific synthesis (2010). In addition, there is also UNEP’s Critical Metals for Future Sustainable Technologies and their Recycling Potential, produced for it by Germany’s Oeko-Institut. From the European Commission came its Report of the Ad-hoc Working Group on defining critical raw materials, together with its all-important Annex V, and the 2010 document “Critical raw materials for the EU.

 

 

However, and it is often a big “however,” sometimes the data used in these reports can be either out of date, or just inaccurate. In the EC documents, for example, some of the most up-to-date figures date back as far as 2008. And a number of data in the latest DoE strategy document are based on extensive revisions of the previous year’s figures.

In other instances, figures and illustrations can be confusing. A state of affairs that, unfortunately, can be compounded as they are copied from one “research” document to another, on the basis of a prior document’s “authority.”

For example, those interested specifically in gallium might have turned to page 114 in the European Commission Joint Research Centre Institute for Energy and Transport’s “Critical Metals in Strategic Energy Technologies” published last October. There they would have seen a nice little pie chart showing the metal’s “Economic Importance” (with, however, no date for the data) taken from the aforementioned Annex V (page 75).

Anybody with a wee bit of prior knowledge of the metal may have been a little confused by it, not least by the fact that R&D accounted for some 14 percent of consumption! Only after a little more digging, however, would you have found that its source is a report by Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute that, itself, used figures relating to domestic consumption of the metal in the form of gallium arsenide in the U.S. There is nothing accompanying the chart to indicate whether this is “global” importance, or importance only to the U.S., although one is rather led to believe that it is global.

(Since, however, in 2008 alone (see the DoE’s 2010 Critical Materials Strategy, page 39), U.S. domestic consumption of gallium was estimated to account only for some 25 percent of global consumption — Japan was at the time (and remains) a considerably larger consumer of the metal than the U.S.

Even though clarification may, perhaps, have been useful if this chart were going to be used going forward, this did not, however, prevent the very same illustration being used (without comment or gloss), and the confusion being compounded further.

Unfortunately for policymakers and those interested in the metal (including investors), as the chart stands in both documents, it provides a somewhat misleading picture of how things actually are (it is now very out of date) — unless you are prepared to go back through the chain of sources used to produce it. Something very few of us are prepared actually to do.

So, even if something appears in an official publication, continue to treat what you read with a degree of tempered skepticism, and, should you have the time, backtrack on any of the sources that may be quoted.

 

Afterword

Of course, in addition to all the “official,” and “semiofficial” sources and resources mentioned above, there are degrees of magnitude more of such out there that could in no way be described as “official.” Some are excellent, and some are, frankly, dreadful. All, however, whether official or unofficial, will, to a greater or lesser degree, have an agenda. Just try to remain aware of this.

It is easy to become bamboozled by myriad figures and dicta, and equally easy to let pass statements that might, perhaps, require a bit more attention.

Consider carefully, for example, just this single simple statement taken from the latest DoE Critical Materials Strategy document: “Since the release of the 2010 Critical Materials Strategy, silicon prices have dropped sharply, making traditional crystalline silicon PV cells much more cost competitive with thin-film cells” (page 140). When were thin-film cells ever cost competitive?!

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