Minor Metals: mostly unseen but crucial for the future
By Ellsworth Dickson
According to the Minor Metals Trade Association, the 49 minor metals are defined as those metals that are predominantly by-product metals that are not exchange traded. They are lower volume, but often higher value metals, critical to a multitude of sectors.
Production of these valuable metals can range from only tens of tonnes to several hundred thousand tonnes per year. Minor metal applications include aerospace, automotive, medical, optics, consumer electronics, catalysts, batteries and renewable energy technologies.
This article will cover the minor metals magnesium, indium, titanium, tungsten, gallium and germanium. Although graphite is not a metal, we have included it.
Gallium, which, in its pure form is a silvery liquid at room temperature but is not toxic like mercury, is found in trace amounts in bauxite ore from aluminium production, as well as in zinc deposits, with most primary production coming from China, as well as recovery from Canada, Germany, Japan and the UK. As much as 90% of primary global gallium supply is a by-product of processing of bauxite (alumina ore) with lesser amounts derived from sphalerite (ZnS).
Gallium has been deemed “critical” by the United States Government (i.e., restricted supply by China, Kazakhstan and Ukraine, and in high-demand) that is used in numerous modern applications, including wireless communications such as 5G, cell phones, laser diodes, semiconductors, solar energy, flat screen televisions, computer monitors, pharmaceuticals, nuclear medicine tests and military defense.
A significant potential exists for bottlenecks in the gallium supply chain because of rapid growth in areas of green/clean energy technologies. Production of gallium is therefore limited by global factors and economics that influence the production of the principal mineral commodities (i.e., aluminum or zinc).
Germanium, according to theÂ U.S. Geological Survey, notedÂ that the approximate percentages of the uses of germanium are: 30% for infraredÂ optics, including detectors; 20% for fiber optics used in communications; 20% fort polyethylene terephthalate used in a variety of products such as cloth fibers, food containers, and resins; 15% for electronics and solar cells for solar panels; and 5% for phosphors, metallurgy, and organics including medications.
Germanium is metalloid, meaning that it has properties of both metals and non-metals. It is mostly mined with zinc ore as well as with argyrodite, germanite, and coal according to theÂ Los Alamos National Laboratory. Germanium is mined in Alaska, Tennessee, China, the United Kingdom, Ukraine, Russia and Belgium.
Magnesium is a useful industrial metal. Being the lightest of all structural metals, magnesium is used in automotive applications that significantly contribute to greater fuel economy and environmental conservation. It is also extensively used in aircraft, batteries, laptops and cell phones.
Indium is a soft, silvery metal with a resistance to moisture. It is mined as a by-product of zinc, lead, tin and copper and is extracted during their production in refineries in France, South Korea, Japan, Canada, South America and China.
Approximately 55% of world demand is for flat screen displays, with the remainder being used in a range of other mechanical and electronics applications including compound semi-conductors, fiber optics, low melting point alloys, energy storage, nuclear control rods, LED lighting and solar panels.
Titanium occurs within a number of mineral deposits, principally rutile and ilmenite. Titanium can be alloyed with iron, aluminium, vanadium, and molybdenum, among other elements, to produce strong, lightweight alloys for aerospace (jet engines, missiles, and spacecraft), military, industrial processes (chemicals and petrochemicals, desalination plants, pulp, and paper), automotive, agriculture (farming), medical prostheses, orthopedic implants, dental and endodontic instruments and files, dental implants, sporting goods, jewelry, mobile phones, paint pigments and other applications.
Tungsten has many uses, the largest of which is as tungsten carbide in cemented carbides.Â Cemented carbides (also called hardmetals) are wear-resistant materials used by the metalworking, mining, and construction industries.Â Tungsten is also used in metal wires, electrodes, and/or contacts are for lighting, electronic, electrical, heating, and welding applications.Â Tungsten is utilized to make heavy metal alloys for armaments, heat sinks, and high-density applications, such as weights and counterweights; superalloys for turbine blades; tool steels; and wear-resistant alloy parts and coatings and even bullets to replace lead.
Vanadium is used to increase strength in alloys in axles, crankshafts, gears, and other critical industrial components.Â It has been used together with aluminum to give the required strength in titanium alloys used in jet engines and high-speed airframes.
The metal is increasingly used for vanadium redox flow battery technology for stationary electric power storage.
For the above noted uses, it can be seen that minor metals, though low in production compared to other metals such as iron and copper, are actually crucial for present and future technologies and applications.
Reuters reported that “a tight supply outlook is expected to lift prices for a number of minor metals over the next three to five years although investors will need to take on a higher degree of risk to endure illiquid and opaque markets in order to reap benefits.
While the weak global economy has sapped appetite for risk sensitive commodities, longer term investors are looking to strategic metals such as indium, germanium and tungsten as supplies are restricted and demand for high-tech gadgets is expected to remain resilient.”
Roskill reports that global consumption of magnesium will rise by a CAGR of over 5% over the next decade. The drive to reduce vehicle weight, and thus emissions, will see demand for magnesium alloys grow.
Regarding titanium, a Roskill study stated that the global titanium metal industry is on a long-term growth trend, and the 2014-2019 time frame saw rising output and trade along the whole supply chain. Exports of feedstocks increased significantly in 2019, with international sponge shipments estimated to have increased by around 20% y-o-y and exports of titanium scrap up by 14% y-o-y.
Another Roskill study noted that an estimated 97% of the world’s primary gallium supply in 2019 came from China, with the CIS accounting for the bulk of the rest. Not surprisingly, gallium, a non-toxic metal, is regarded by the USA, EU and others as critical (economic importance and supply risk). It currently appears to be viewed as medium-critical. Roskill considers it quite possible that a higher ranking will be adopted in future. The COVID-19 pandemic will provide a boost to demand for gallium.
In its report, Roskill pointed out that vanadium demand growth in 2019 remained strong, driven primarily by a large increase in China’s steel production.Â It said that demand growth was matched by a rising supply from both slag and coalstone producers, keeping the market sufficiently supplied.
The vanadium market appears to have returned into balance in 2020, although COVID-19 is expected to impact the supply chain and broader global economy.
The medium-term outlook for vanadium will be shaped by several factors affecting both demand and supply. Roskill said that after two decades of a rising steel production, a maturing Chinese economy will translate into a flattening steel production which will gradually slow demand for vanadium. Roskill’s view is that China’s crude steel production will approach its peak in the mid-2020s. The development of VRB technology appears to be a longer-term possibility to offer a new major source of demand, although Roskill expects this to be limited in scale over the 2020s.
According to the USGS, in 2019, natural graphite was not produced in the United States; however, approximately 95 U.S. firms, primarily in the Great Lakes and Northeastern regions and Alabama and Tennessee, consumed 52,000 tons valued at an estimated $44 million. The major uses of natural graphite were brake linings, lubricants, powdered metals, refractory applications, steelmaking, and EV lithium-ion batteries.
During 2019, China produced more than 60% of the world’s graphite. Approximately 40% of production in China was amorphous graphite and about 60% was flake. Canada produced an estimated 40,000 tonnes of graphite in 2019.
Graphite prices have increased steadily since late 2017 as demand for flake graphite from the lithium-ion battery industry coincided with Chinese environmental inspections and then Covid-19 plant closures, according to Roskill. Sustained high prices have encouraged development of flake graphite projects outside of China.
The U.S. government is concerned about access to graphite. President Trump’s recent executive order stated: “The United States is 100% reliant on imports for graphite, which is used to make advanced batteries for cellphones, laptops, and hybrid and electric cars. China produces over 60% of the world’s graphite and almost all of the world’s production of high-purity graphite needed for rechargeable batteries. For these and other critical minerals identified by the Secretary of the Interior, we must reduce our vulnerability to adverse foreign government action, natural disaster, or other supply disruptions. Our national security, foreign policy, and economy require a consistent supply of each of these minerals. I hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat.”
Appia Energy Corp. [API-CSE; APAAF-OTCQB; A0I.F, A0I.MU, A0I.BE-Germany] recently received encouraging assays from surface sample results from the Phase I exploration program on the 100%-owned Alces Lake high-grade rare earth element (REE) property in northern Saskatchewan.
In addition to the REE values, the assays recorded values in gallium, another critical and strategic metal. Surface sample assay highlights included 4.209 wt% total rare earth oxide (TREO) and 0.012 wt% gallium oxide (Ga2O3) from an outcrop grab sample at the Ermacre Zone.
Channel sampling (Line 2) at the Oldman Zone returned 1.117 wt% TREO and 0.011 wt% Ga2O3 over a 4.69-metre length, including 2.609 wt% TREO and 0.011 wt% Ga2O3 over 1.67 metres. The Ken Zone returned 0.591 wt% TREO and 0.006 wt% Ga2O3 from an outcrop grab sample. The Hawker Zone returned: 0.171 wt% uranium oxide (U3O8) from an outcrop grab sample and will see more follow-up..
Appia was aware that gallium existed within the high-grade rare earth element mineralization system on the Alces Lake property. High concentrations of gallium oxide were identified in the 2017 Alces Lake prospecting lithogeochemical results. An average of 138.75 ppm (0.014 wt%) and maximum of 348.15 ppm (0.035 wt%) Ga2O3 was calculated from 23 samples.
James Sykes, Vice-President, Exploration and Development, said, “High-grade gallium (defined here as >0.010 wt% Ga2O3) has also been noted at both the Ermacre and Oldman zones. The gallium concentrations here are similar to previously reported gallium results, suggesting that gallium concentration is possibly tied to the [mineral] system across the property.
We will continue Phase II exploration (diamond drilling) along the Ermacre-Hinge to Charles-Wilson corridor in search for continuity of the REE minerals system and additional high-grade REE zones. The Oldman and Ken occurrences, 6.5 and 7.5 km SW of the Charles-Wilson zones, clearly demonstrate the extent to which the system can occur along our property’s 45 km-long geological trend.”
Gallium is one of the few elements besides uranium, thorium and phosphorus that exhibits a similar positive linear correlation with REEs, suggesting not only that gallium is part of the mineralization system but could be directly related to monazite (i.e., the higher the concentration of TREO, the higher the concentration of gallium).
Appia Energy has now completed 2,506.8 metres of diamond drilling in 18 drill holes. The Alces Lake mineral system is still open in all directions (3D space), and in two sub-parallel trends.
Alces Lake hosts some of the highest REE grades in the world. For example, at a 4 wt% TREO cut-off, the Alces Lake average grade is 16.65 wt% TREO.
Sykes commented: “The results of the program have achieved a number of milestones. We have successfully confirmed high-grade mineralization over a 145-metre strike length at the WRCB zone, and we’ve also identified two trends of the [mineral] system occurring over an 875-metre strike length, which defines our current drill limits. The system was intersected down to a 340-metre vertical depth, which indicates this system is large and extensive. The gallium extracted during the REE processing stage represents another potential revenue stream for Alces Lake.”
Diamond drilling has successfully correlated the ground audiomagnetotellurics geophysical survey interpretations with the mineral system. The drilling program saw a high success rate with 15 out of 18 drill holes intersecting the mineral system.
Since detailed exploration began at Alces Lake in 2017, a total of 74 REE and uranium-bearing surface zones and occurrences of the system have been discovered. To date, less than 1% of the property has been explored with diamond drilling.
Drill core samples have been delivered to the Saskatchewan Research Council Geoanalytical Laboratory in Saskatoon, SK, for major element and REE analysis. Results will be released once received and interpreted by the company. The company will continue to work with their geophysical contractor to further refine their interpretation of the recent surveys and to follow-up with a larger geophysical program next summer. Next season’s exploration plans are being formulated.
The Saskatchewan Research Council and the Government of Saskatchewan recently announced plans to develop a “first-of-its-kind” Rare Earth Processing Facility in Saskatchewan to lay the foundation for a REE supply chain in Saskatchewan with completion set for late 2022.
Appia has 79.7 million common shares outstanding. The companyÂ also has a REE/uranium project in Eliot Lake, Ontario.
Headed by Tom Drivas, President and CEO, Appia recently arranged a non-brokered private placement of up to 10 million flow-through units at 40 cents or up to 10 million working capital units at 35 cents or a combination thereof to a maximum of 10 million units.
Appia Energy is one of a very few rare earth companies that check all the boxes – grade, mineralogy, processing facility radiation and environmental management (small footprint). At the Alces Lake property in pro-mining Saskatchewan, all the REE have simple metallurgy and are hosted 100% within monazite. REE mineralization is enriched in the critical rare earth elements such as neodymium, praseodymium, dysprosium and terbium that account for 23-25% of the TREO. These elements are necessary for the growing permanent magnet industry.
With regards to gallium, the Alces Lake naturally occurring Ga2O3 concentrations are much higher than those occurring as concentrated by-products from bauxite and sphalerite ores, which represent primary global sources of production and supply. The gallium grades observed at Alces Lake are comparable to those of the long-lived but now-shuttered (2011) Apex mine in southwestern Utah, USA, the only primary mined source of gallium.
The Alces Lake Project is close to an old mining camp with existing support services, such as transportation (i.e., 15 km from the nearest rail), energy infrastructure (hydroelectric power), a 1,200-metre airstrip with daily scheduled services, and access to heavy equipment.
Happy Creek Minerals Ltd. [HPY-TSXV] has recently completed a diamond drilling program at its 100%-owned, km2 flagship Fox tungsten property located 75 km northeast of 100 Mile House in the South Cariboo region of south-central British Columbia. Seven drill holes totalling approximately 1,100 metres were completed primarily at the Nightcrawler zone.
Tungsten, valued at about four to five times the price of copper, is a strategic and critical metal used in tools and hard-steel applications. North America imports about 99% of its tungsten. Happy Creek is the only TSX-listed company actively exploring and drilling for tungsten in North America. The Fox property represents a rare, high-grade strategic and critical metal discovery that the company is working towards the development stage.
Happy Creek has explored the property from initial discovery to a current resource estimate of 582,400 tonnes of 0.826% WO3 (Indicated) and 565,400 tonnes of 1.231% WO3 (Inferred) that is open for expansion and among the highest-grade tungsten deposits in the western world. Other metals such as zinc, indium, bismuth, gold and silver occur with tungsten that are not included in the resource. The Fox property has tungsten in outcrop and drill holes in a 12 km by 5 km area with numerous surface showings, trenches and exploratory drill holes containing grades that are above the resource cut-off and the property remains under-explored.
At the road accessible Nightcrawler Zone, previous drilling returned highlights of 5 metres of 1.0% WO3 and 6.3 metres of 0.43% WO3. The objective of the continuing drilling effort for this area is to potentially outline an inferred resource to add to the current resource.
At low elevations around the southwest side of Deception Mountain, very recent reconnaissance work has identified tungsten in stream sediment, angular boulders and locally outcrop of marble-calc silicate host rock in which Ultraviolet lamping indicates the presence of the tungsten mineral scheelite [that fluoresces under UV light]. The new area of mineralization is approximately 4.5 km southeast of mineralization found earlier in the season. Company geologists are of the view that this area could potentially be a geological connection of the current resource-bearing marble-calc silicate unit located 5 km up-dip to the east. In light of these recent finds in a 4.5km long by 2 km wide area, a more comprehensive exploration approach is required. Analytical labs are slow these days, so results are anticipated in approximately 8 weeks.
The company is also preparing to mobilize a drilling program on the 240 km2 West Valley – Rateria copper project 35 km northwest of Merritt in southern British Columbia. The 100%-owned, road-accessible Rateria and West Valley properties adjoin to the east and west, respectively, the southern portion of the Teck Resources Highland Valley Copper mine property, Canada’s largest copper producer. It also adjoins to the north, the former Craigmont copper mine property.
Porphyry copper mineralization at West Valley – Rateria has been shown comparable with mineral systems found at other deposits in the Highland Valley. At Rateria, however, the Company’s Zone 2 discovery contains elevated rhenium and gold values that appear unusual in the district.Â Considerable exploration has been completed, including prospecting, geology, geochemical, airborne and ground geophysical surveys, LiDAR, 132 drill holes and metallurgy.
At the Zone 1 discovery, continuous copper mineralization has been defined over 1.2 km in length, 50-150 metres in width and from surface to 400 metres in depth and remains open. Highlights include 95 metres of 0.65% copper, 250 metres of 0.25% copper and 162.5 metres of 0.32% copper. At the Zone 2 discovery, a central, continuous higher-grade zone is 750 metres by 75-150 metres to 350 metres in depth. Highlights include: 126.0 metres of 0.46% copper, 0.10 g/t gold; 92.8 metres of 0.30% copper and 0.15 g/t gold; 152.5 metres of 0.35% copper and 0.06 g/t gold; 105.5 metres of 0.37% copper, 0.14 g/t gold and 0.63 g/t rhenium. A step out hole in 2017 returned 5 metres of 4.4% copper and Zone 2 remains open.
The drilling program will also include the first drill test of a new, fast-tracked, large scale porphyry copper target called the Pim on the West Valley property, located approximately 5.5 km southwest of the giant Lornex open pit.
Happy Creek Minerals also holds the Hawk (copper-gold-silver), Hen Art-DL (gold, polymetallic) and Silverboss (copper-molybdenum, gold, silver) properties – all the Cariboo region.
The company is favourably positioned going forward with its prospective Fox Tungsten Project and its West Valley – Rateria Copper Project – both with in-demand mineral commodities. Happy Creek has 105.7 million shares outstanding.
Gratomic Inc. [GRAT-TSXV; CBULF-OTC; CB81-FSE; A143MR-WKN] is nearing completion on construction of its Aukam Graphite Project processing plant in Namibia, Africa.Â Gratomic holds 63% ownership of the historic mine site.
Unlike, gold or copper, there are different types and grades of graphite. The Aukam graphite mine was previously in production between 1940 and 1956 and 1964 to 1974 with commercial production expected to commence later this fall.
Gratomic is preparing to bring its high-grade, environmentally sustainable graphite to the North American electric vehicle market and is ready to introduce its graphite in a spherical classification grade to battery producers for use in advanced anode technology.
Being naturally of high purity and containing little to no deleterious elements, Gratomic’s vein graphite is ideal for use in this application, requiring simpler, less expensive and more efficient processing methods, which do not require the use of harmful chemicals. The company designed and custom built its commercial processing plant based on results obtained through its pilot processing plant program, which ran from 2017 to 2019.
The company will utilize the 23,000 tonnes of historic stockpile at the base of the mountain and intends to move toward an open pit mine in 2021.Â The site boasts a 15-km visible strike of vein graphite in addition to the mineral hosted within the mountain.
“Gratomic has entered into discussions with several carbon-to-battery experts with the intent to provide a tailored product for the battery market,” said President and CEO Arno Brand.
Gratomic currently has two off-take purchase agreements for its high-grade Aukam vein graphite. Under a US$25 million supply agreement, Gratomic will supply TODAQ graphite, which will be used as a backstop to underpin its digital currency (TDN notes). To date, TODAQ has placed three initial purchase orders for 1,800 tonnes of graphite.
Another sales agreement has been signed to supply Phu Sumika with 7,500 tonnes of graphite annually for five years, for a total of 37,500 tonnes, that contemplates graphitic products ranging from 80% to 99.9% carbon at prices ranging from US$500 to US$2,800/tonne.
Gratomic received its official Mining Licence (ML 215) on May 5, 2020 that includes the processing plant area and the graphite-bearing shear zone of 5,002 hectares. Surface stockpiles will serve as initial feedstock for the first one to two years of production with a plan to transition Aukam to an open pit mine in early 2021.
The company’s management team has extensive experience on a global scale, including planning, engineering, research and development, processing, mine building, project management and sales and marketing.
Gratomic Inc. has 66,563,481 shares outstanding.
The company is in a unique position for a junior miner with near-term production and revenue potential at a mining operation with an expected multi-decade mine life and a solid growing demand for its graphite products.