COBALT, URANIUM, CHROMIUM, TITANIUM, NICKEL AND OTHER STRATEGIC METALS

HIGH PRICES FOR STRATEGIC METALS

During the mid and late 2000s the prices of most metals soared primarily on the back of strong demand from China. The price of nickel rose more than 700 percent between March 2002 and March 2007. The price of the rare metal Indium, rose about 850 percent between March 2002 and March 2007. Between March 2002 and March 2005 it rose about 1,500 percent from $70 a kilogram to about $1,000 a kilogram.

Prices came back down during the global economic crisis in 2008 and 2009. By January 2009, metals had lost 60 percent of their value from the previous summer.

Rare and important metals include vanadium, used in steel production, jet engines and batteries; Iridium, used in LCD displays and touchscreen technology; and indium, a rare, very soft, malleable and easily fusible metal. About 4,500 kilograms of ore, rock, soil and sand needs to be excavated to produce one kilogram of indium. [Source: Japanese Environmental Ministry]

Mineral and Energy Production : United States Geological Survey (USGS) Minerals Resources Program minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity ; Index Mundi indexmundi.com/minerals/ ; Energy Information Administration, Department of Energy eia.doe.gov/emeu/international ; Nationmaster nationmaster.com

Websites and Resources on Mining: Mining.com mining.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Mining Engineering books.google.com/books ; Geology and Hard Rock Mining rmmlf.org/scitech/ ; Mining technology mining-technology.com ;

Websites and Resources on Minerals: Mineralogy Database webmineral.com ; Minerals and Gemstone Kingdom minerals.net ; Mindat.org mindat.org ; Minerals Atlas mineralatlas.com ;

Chromium

Chromium is an ingredient for stainless steel, a material used to make everything from kitchen utensils to precision tools and surgical equipment. It is resistant to heat and chemicals. This makes it a good material for making strong, corrosion-resistant alloys but also means it expensive and difficult to process. Most chromium is extracted from an ore called chromite, which contains oxygen and iron that are removed by processing.

A portion of chromium as small a 10 percent added to iron or steel makes it corrosion resistant. Chromium largely replaced nickel and zinc as the primary plating material because of its superior hardness and resistance to chemical processes. About 80 percent of world consumption of chromate is in the chemical and metallurgical industries. Many chromates are poisonous. They damaged red blood cells if they enter the skin.

Chromium is named after the Greek word chrome , meaning colors, because of the wide variety of hues by chromium compounds. It is a key ingredient in mineral and metallic colors and is responsible for boosting the color of many gems, including emeralds. rubies and some sapphires. Chromate compounds with barium, lead and zinc produce the pigments lemon chrome, chrome red, zinc yellow and zinc green.

About two thirds of the world's chromate production comes from Kazahkstan and South Africa. Other sources include Turkey, Zimbabwe, the Philippines, and Yugoslavia.

World Production, By Country (Metric tons, gross weight, 2006): 1) South Africa 7418326; 2) India 3600400; 3) Kazakhstan 3600000; 4) Turkey 1059901; 5) RussianFederation 966065; 6) Brazil 615900; 7) Zimbabwe 600000; 8) Finland 548713; 9) Australia 252867; 10) Iran, Islamic Republic Of 225000; 11) China 200000; 12) Pakistan 199000; 13) Madagascar 132335; 14) Viet Nam 90000; 15) Oman 70500; 16) Albania 65000; 17) Philippines 46728; 18) Cuba 34000; 19) Sudan 22000 [Source: United States Geological Survey (USGS) Minerals Resources Program]

Cobalt

Cobalt is rare and essential metal used in super alloys for jet engines, chemicals (paint driers, catalysts, magnetic coatings); permanent magnets; cemented carbines for cutting tools; and car batteries, laptop computers and mobile phones. Among the cobalt alloys are carboloy, one the hardest substance known to man; alnico, used to make magnets in loudspeakers; satellites, used to make high-speed metal-cutting tools. Cobalt is also utilized as a catalysts in the synthesis of gasoline and as an ingredient for cobalt blue pigments. Cobalt-60 is a radioactive isotope made by bombarding cobalt with slow neutrons in a nuclear reactor. It is used in cancer treatments and to cause mutations in plants.

Pure cobalt is silvery white with a reddish tinge. Closely related to iron and nickel, it is hard, very magnetic, but more chemically reactive than iron. Cobalt does not occur in a natural state. It is usually combined with arsenic, sulfur and oxygen in mineral ores. The primary ones are smalite and cobalite.

Processing cobalt is expensive. Separating the metal from the ore requires a series of steps that include smelting, roasting, leeching, precipitation, and electrolysis The main sources of cobalt are Zaire, Zambia and the former U.S.S.R. The U.S. also imports it from Canada and Norway. The U.S. consumes one third of the world output of cobalt. Even though it has cobalt deposit it hasn't mined the mineral since 1971 because the deposits are low quality.

The price of cobalt rose about 500 percent between March 2002 and March 2007.

World Mine Production, By Country (Metric tons, cobalt content, 2006): 1) Congo, The Democratic Republic Of The 28,000; 2) Zambia 8,000; 3) Australia 7,400; 4) Canada 6,976; 5) Russian Federation 5,100; 6) Cuba 3,800; 7) China 2,300; 8) New Caledonia 1,900; 9) Morocco 1,500; 10) Brazil 1,200; 11) South Africa 400; 12) Botswana 303; 13) Kazakhstan 300; 14) Zimbabwe 290 [Source: United States Geological Survey (USGS) Minerals Resources Program]

Manganese

Manganese is a metal essential in copper, steel and iron production. Used in small quantities it makes alloys made with other metals hard and strong. Manganese compounds are used in making a number of things.

Manganese is introduced into steel by adding the an iron alloy, either ferromanganese (80 percent manganese) or spieleleison (20 percent manganese). The alloys are obtained by smelting iron ore with an ore rich in manganese.

Manganese is a strategic metal. It is not found in minable quantities in the United States, Western Europe of Japan. South Africa and the former Soviet Union have over 80 percent of the worlds’ reserves. The U.S. also imports manganese from Gabon, France, Brazil, India, Ghana, Mexico and the Congo.

Molybdenum

Molybdenum is used in heat resistant stainless steel and automobile steel. It is often added to steel or other metal alloys to help them withstands heat. It is useful in making machines parts that run at high speeds and build up large amounts of heat from friction. It also has other chemical and industrial application. Molybdenum is used to make cardiograms

China is a major global supplier. Other most important producers are the United States and Chile. The price of it rose about 600 percent between March 2002 and March 2007.

World Mine Production, By Country (Metric tons of contained molybdenum, 2007): 1) China 59,800; 2) United States 57,000; 3) Chile 44,912; 4) Peru 16,737; 5) Canada 12,000; 6) Mexico 6,15; 7) Armenia 4,080; 8) Russian Federation 3,300; 9) Iran, Islamic Republic Of 2,600; 10) Mongolia 1,300; 11) Uzbekistan 600; 12) Kazakhstan 400; 13) Kyrgyzstan 250 [Source: United States Geological Survey (USGS) Minerals Resources Program]

Nickel

Nickel is a metal that is essential in the making of stainless steel and other alloys. Hard, malleable and magnetic, it is important in the chemical and aerospace industries.

Stainless steel industry consumes 65 percent of the world’s nickel supply. The nickel content in different kind of steel varies according to properties desired. Inwar steel, which is 36 percent nickel, is used in measuring instruments because it doesn't expand or contract under a wide range of temperatures.

Copper-nickel alloys are used in boiler tubes and bullet jackets. Nickel-chromium steel is used in automobile gears and armor plate. Nickel oxide is used in batteries and pottery glazes.

Leading producer include the former U.S.S.R., Canada, Australia and New Caledonia. New Caledonia contains 25 percent of the world’s known nickel reserves. Nickel is often found with other metals such as copper, iron, cobalt and platinum.

Nickel is used in stainless steel. The price of it rose more than 700 percent between March 2002 and March 2007 as a result of increased demand for stainless steel, dwindling inventories, delays in bringing new projects on line, and the inability of producers to keep up with demand. From an investors point of view it was the best performing metal in 2006. Prices reached $33,500 a metric ton that year.

The price of nickel rose so high that U.S. coins using it were worth more melted down. With that the case U.S. mint officials prohibited melting down five cent coins. The penalty for doing so is up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. A nickel is 25 percent nickel and 75 percent copper, As of late 2006 the value of the meal in the coin was 6.99 cents. With production costs added in the value was to 8.34 cents.

Titanium

Titanium is an expensive metal prized for its strength and lightness. It is as strong a steel but 45 percent lighter. It is 60 percent heavier than aluminum but twice as strong. It also highly resistant to corrosion. Titanium wasn’t purified until 1910 because of the difficulties in removing impurities from the rulite and ilemenite ores in which it is found. It wasn’t widely used until after World War II when scientists for the first time developed sophisticated method to refine pure titanium.

Titanium can be given a number of appearances when coated with oxidized metal. The thickness of the coating can change the way the metal reflects light and changes color. Titanium dioxide is considered the "whitest" substance known. It is used as a pigment in cosmetics and high-quality paper and a whitening agent in leather and false teeth.

Titanium is used mostly in jet engines and airplane frames, and in various space and missile applications. It is valued in aerospace because it is light, resistant to heat of jet engines and strong enough to withstand air friction and stress at high speeds.

Some have called titanium the metal of the 20th century. It is used to make artificial bone joints (it rarely causes inflammation when places in the body), jewelry, eyeglass frames, roofs, heat exchangers in chemical plants, steam condensers in thermal power plants, golf clubs, bicycle frames and parts, watches, motorcycle exhaust pipes, and sheathing for Frank Gerry buildings in Bilbao and Los Angeles. Because it doesn’t rust much, scientists are hoping to use to make fishing boats.

Titanium Producers

Titanium is the forth most abundant metal in the earth’s crust but it sells for around $20 per kilogram compared to $3 a kilogram for high grade stainless steel because it so expensive to extract from ore and process. It is most often found in ores with other elements. Rutile is a red or brown mass of crystals with titanium, oxygen and some iron. Ilemenite is a complex oxide of titanium and iron.

Titanium is produced in the Ukraine, Russia, Kazakstan, Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom and China. Sources of rutile are Australia, the United States, South Africa and India. Sources of ilmenite are the United States, Norway, Canada, the United States, Malaysia, and Finland.

Tungsten

Tungsten is used in lamp filaments, steels alloys for high-speed tools, auto parts, drills, cutters, cemented carbide (a supper hard material), superhard tools for manufacturing and processing tools for semiconductors. Twice as heavy as lead, it is resistant to heat, which is why it ideal for lamp filaments, and is resistant to abrasion, oxidization and corrosion, which makes it ideal for high-speed tool steels alloys. Alloys of tungsten carbide with cobalts are among the hardest metals known. Tungsten’s name is derived from the Swedish word tung ("heavy") and sten ("stone").

The same qualities that make tungsten strong and heat-resistant also make it hard to mine. Tungsten is derived from two minerals: scheclite (calcium tungstate) and wolframite (tungsten mixed with manganese and sulfur). A number of steps are necessary to remove the tungsten from other minerals.

About 190 kilograms of ore, rock, soil and sand needs to be excavated to produce one kilogram of tungsten. [Source: Japanese Environmental Ministry]

The main producers of tungsten are China, Bolivia, Germany and Peru. It is also produced in the United States and North and South Korea. China produces 88 percent of the world’s supply. The price for tungsten rose from $6 per kilogram in 2003 to $26 per kilogram in April 2006 because of increased demand in China.

World Concentrate Production, By Country (Metric tons, tungsten content, 2007): 1) China 41,000; 2) Russian Federation 3,200; 3) Canada 2,700; 4) Rwanda 1,534; 5) Austria 1,200; 6) Bolivia 1,107; 7) Portugal 846; 8) Korea, Democratic People's Republic Of 600; 9) Brazil 537; 10) Congo, The Democratic Republic Of The 500; 11) Peru 348; 12) Thailand 300; 13) Mongolia 250; 14) Myanmar 183; 15) Burundi 144; 16) Uganda 75 [Source: United States Geological Survey (USGS) Minerals Resources Program]

Uranium

“Canada, Australia and Kazakhstan are all major producers of uranium Top 10 uranium producers (millions of tons per year in the 1990s): 1) Canada (7,813); 2) Australia (3,776); 3) the United States (3,000); 4) Niger (2,964); 5) Namibia (2,450).

Uranium is used as a nuclear fuel in power stations and nuclear=powered submarines and vessels and in the production of nuclear weapons and armor-piercing bullets and in the aviation sector.

Tom Zoeliner in his book Uramium, described the element as a “heroic war ender, a prophet of utopia that never arrived, a polluter, a slow killer, a water of money, an enabler of failed states, a friend of terrorists, the possible bringer of Armageddon, an excuse for war with Iraq, an incitement for possible war with Iran, and too, a possible savior against global warming.”

High oil prices have forced up the price of uranium as governments consider turning to nuclear power to meet energy demands.

Between 2003 and 2006 the price rose from $12 a pound to $66 a pound on rising oil, coal and gas prices and views that nuclear energy offered a viable, clean energy source that didn’t produce greenhouse gas emission

Uranium mining can be dangerous in terms of radiation exposure to miners and people living near uranium mines. Both groups can be exposed to high levels of radioactivity if they are not careful and necessary precautions are not taken. This has been especially true with uranium mines on Navajo reservations in the United States hastily exploited in the Cold War to provide materials for nuclear weapons. Non-English-speaking miners were not informed of dangers of their work and Indians who lived near their mines were so ignorant about the dangers of uranium they used tailing from the mines to make mud bricks for homes they lived in for decades. As it stand now some mines have been “surgically scraped” and cleaned. But others give off dangerous amounts of radioactivity and will probably do so for some time because the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to clean them up is not available. [Source: New York Times]

“The radioactivity released by uranium and its decay products, like radon ad radium, are known to cause health problems, including bone, live , breats and lung cancer. One Navojo who wroked at a uranium mine near Tuba City, Arizona died of lung canver at age 55. His daughter said her father wore no protective gera in the mbed. When he washed after a day working n the mines the water in the basin turned yellow. [Ibid]

Book: Uranium by Tom Zoeliner

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated August 2012

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