Beryllium Basics: Building On Strength As A Critical & Strategic Metal

December 14, 2012

 

Several years ago in Russia, MBC Corp. (MBC), the management company of the Metropol group of companies' mining assets, signed an agreement with the UMP to develop a Russian-Kazakh project to build the Yermakovsky Mining Plant, which would produce beryllium hydroxide. Previously operated by Zabaikalsky GOK from 1979-1989, with its concentrates going to UMP, the Yermakovskoe project in the Russian republic of Buryatiya is now managed by MBC's Yermakovsky Mining and Smelting Co.

Considered one of the largest beryllium deposits in Russia, its beryllium resources total 5,700 tons of beryllium. MBC sees the ore supply lasting 50 years, and the output—starting in 2014 and both "basic 1st stage product," of beryllium hydroxide and beryllium metal—being 130 tons and 20 tons, respectively. Such projections, if all goes according to plan, would presage a healthy return to production for the Russian mine. One only wonders to whom they would be selling it.

The Marketplace

The beryllium market remains dominated by just a small handful of participants, the most significant on the mine production side being Materion (MTRN: US) and NNMS. These, along with UMP, continue to be the largest consumers of beryllium as a pure metal.

However, both NGK Insulators, Ltd. (NGKIF:US) (through NGK Metals Corp.) and Hunan Shui Kou Shan Nonferrous Metals Group Co., Ltd. (now part of China Minmetals Corp.) also remain significant consumers of beryllium. Of all these, only Materion and NGK Insulators are currently quoted.

IBC Advanced Alloys (IB:CN) is the only other significant player in the market that is quoted. Still a relatively young company, it has continued to develop its presence not only in markets in which the metal is already well understood, such as those using engineered beryllium—in particular, the defense aerospace industry—but also in the field of nuclear fuel.

Whereas four years ago some industry experts may have been skeptical of the potential of enhanced beryllium oxide nuclear fuel in power generation, R&D work undertaken by the company since then in conjunction with the likes of Purdue University, MIT and Texas A&M has, in the words of IBC's CEO Anthony Dutton ensured that now "the concept is accepted as a legitimate contender" in the field.

It appears that, not least because of its high rate of thermal conductivity, enhanced beryllium oxide fuel has the potential to offer significant improvements in the margin of safety in "off-normal" reactor events, which is a nuclear industry understatement for the likes of what happened at Fukushima in Japan. The next couple of years should see the company working hard on proof of concept.

Prospects For Beryllium

There currently look to be few reasons to revise the observation in HAI's 2008 beryllium article that "the prospects for beryllium appear to remain encouraging." Both supply and demand seem likely to continue to grow.

If indications from the automotive markets are anything to go by, there is considerable potential for growth in both. And—albeit probably a few years down the road yet—there is also the possible potential for the metal in nuclear power generation.

On the other hand, it will be interesting to see just how increased recycling of the beryllium in both new and old scrap (e.g., the beryllium parts from scrapped military aircraft) affects demand for the virgin metal. (The 2011 figure from the USGS of 10 percent of apparent consumption being attributable to recycling may in fact significantly understate the reality.)

 

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