The Wider Picture
James Peer, MMTA Chairman, opened the MMTA’s recent International Minor Metals Conference in Amsterdam by thanking the event’s sponsors: Platinum Sponsor, C Steinweg Group, and Silver Sponsors: Exotech, EAG, Argus Media and the REACH Orphan Substances Consortium. He thanked them all for their support which allows the MMTA to maintain the incredibly high standards of the conference.
James was very pleased to report that this year’s conference has the best attendance in the MMTA’s history, with 30% more Member companies attending than last year and an increase of 30% in delegates from Asia, which combined with the very strong presence from North America, reflects the truly global reach of the MMTA.
He went on to say that we all know the past year has been one of exceptional turbulence and uncertainty in all commodity markets, and that the world of minor metals has not been unscathed. Whilst it seems that many metals have found their low points, there are still plenty of headwinds that make a rebound in demand risky to bank on.
Some of the key unanswered questions James outlined are:
- When and if the huge fall in energy prices will translate into increased growth and demand in consumer based economies;
- When non-oil and gas and mining sector business investment levels will return to their pre financial crisis levels;
- What the nature and trajectory of growth in China over the coming 5 years will be.
On top of this, James referred to a number of political uncertainties that potentially threaten to restrict the trade flows and patterns that Members of our association thrive on.
- The consequences of the UK leaving the EU, which through copycat behaviour by other members of the EU could potentially see the unravelling of the European single market;
- A more protectionist USA, with every candidate in the US Presidential election committed to halting any EU – USA free trade agreement, and serious doubts over whether the Pan Asian – USA trade agreement will be ratified.
However, against all this uncertainty, he pointed to tremendous opportunities for many of the elements that we are all involved in; minor metals are at the heart of technologies that will define the way we live over the coming generations, such as electric and self-drive cars, the continued growth of the aviation sector, advances in renewable energy sources, where technology is moving so rapidly that, in fields such as solar power, they are becoming competitive with fossil fuels without the need for subsidy. And of course, there is our unwavering demand for electronic devices, all of which require increasing volumes of minor metals.
The MMTA Chairman closed by saying that the news from China is not all gloomy; the MMTA’s friends from the China Non-Ferrous Metals Association have advised that in 2015 the top 10 non-ferrous metals production of 50 million tonnes was still outstripped by demand of 52 million tonnes. It is a message that we all need to remember – whilst growth in metal consumption may not be what it was in China over the past 10 years, consumption levels are such that China is still the key engine for metal demand worldwide.
Within the MMTA
As far as Association developments are concerned, Volker Mertens, MMTA Treasurer, stressed the importance to the Board, as fellow MMTA Members, of supporting the industry during this difficult period by absorbing the projected deficit in 2016 and drawing on the reserves of the Association. He confirmed, however, that we will reluctantly have to raise fees for 2017, but by the smallest amount possible. In doing so, he drew Members’ attention to the changes that have occurred within the Association over the past 6 years since the last time MMTA membership fees were increased.
Chris Edler, Conference Committee Chair, outlined the work of the Board in identifying ways to maximise the benefit of MMTA membership, and announced that from next year there will be a significantly increased discount for MMTA Members when booking for the conference, in the hope that even more Members will attend the Association’s conference, and also to encourage non-member companies to join us as Members of the MMTA.
Donald Lambert, Mediation & Arbitration Committee Chair, gave a short overview of the proposed addition of a short form Arbitration process for smaller disputes. The committee has consulted widely on this, and the draft proposal is included in the Annual Review for 2016. Donald encouraged Members to let him know whether the proposed rules and limits will meet the needs of the industry, prior to us moving forward with them.
Finally, Maria Cox, MMTA General Manager, outlined a mixed picture for MMTA membership. Despite a decrease in renewals at the end of 2015, reasons given reflect the difficult environment, with some businesses being wound up or sold, and others refocussing themselves away from minor metals, whether in the short or longer term. However, the membership rate is still 90%, and on an extremely positive note, we had 11 new Members in 2015, with 4 confirmed new Members in the first quarter of 2016, and another 3 currently being processed. We held productive meetings with prospective new members during the conference, and therefore hope to see more joining the Association as the year progresses.
Last month, the MMTA and Metal Events welcomed a record number of attendees to the Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky in vibrant Amsterdam for the MMTA’s International Minor Metals Conference. An exceptional line-up of speakers was warmly welcomed by delegates interested in hearing specialist insight into the fascinating metals that they work with every day.
Keynote speaker, the chemist and author John Emsley, opened the event with the intriguingly titled presentation ‘Elements of surprise: Metals Murder Think Again (MMTA)’. Not one to disappoint, John began by looking at nefarious means to commit murders using minor metals. He also examined the boom in minor metals applications in recent years, concluding that we have truly entered the ‘minor metal age’.
Dan Hewak from the University of Southampton followed with ‘Current and emerging applications of minor metals in optoelectronic devices’. Chalcogenide Glass devices are used in a myriad of applications from night vision systems in cars to security sensors. They have typical compositions based on: Ga, Ge, Zn, Te, Se, S, Sb and As. Dan talked about his department’s challenge of decreasing the thickness of optical fibres, as well as the development of ‘chaff’, the substance used to confuse radars searching for military aircraft. Minor metals have, for several decades, played a crucial role in optoelectronic devices, and continue to do so. There are also opportunities going into the future to replace some noble metals with minors, as devices move from the research lab to commercial products.
The first session of the day looked at future movers and shakers in the minor metals world. Starting with the extremely topical issue of lithium’s use in automotive batteries, Dr Reiner Haus from Dorfner Anzaplan in Germany talked about the recent announcement of the Tesla Model 3. This new model is already breaking records in the auto industry, with 232,000 reservations within 48 hours of launching. To fulfil future battery demand, Tesla is well under way with constructing the world’s largest lithium ion battery plant.
However, apart from investing in lithium mining projects, it seemed difficult for new suppliers to enter the Tesla supply chain.
Jim Hickey, Procurement Manager from Magnesium Elektron continued the morning with a fascinating look at the use of magnesium through automotive and aerospace history. Medical applications, too, are an area where magnesium comes into its own, with dissolvable temporary implants now complementing the use of more permanent replacement parts. This is due to magnesium’s unique properties and interactions in the body.
‘Hafnium supply: Past, present and future’ by Alister MacDonald, of new MMTA Member company Alkane Resources, also took a look at zirconium supply. Both metals, as well as a multitude of others, can be found in Alkane’s new Australian mining project, the Dubbo Zirconia Project around 400km north of Sydney. Alister went on to examine the supply and demand for these materials and touched on niobium and rare earth applications as well.
Rounding off the morning’s session was Sybrand van der Zwaag, Professor at the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering at the Technical University, Delft in the Netherlands. Sybrand presented an extremely engaging overview of self-healing metallo-ceramics and the minor metals used in them. With the help of some fantastic imagery, which really brought the subject to life, he illustrated thermal and erosion damage caused by sand and volcanic ash in aircraft engines. Self-healing MAX phases (the point when a material becomes a tough metallo-ceramic) based on TiAlC and CrAlC look to be very promising for engine applications, but more work needs to be done on other minor metal based MAX Phases for next generation jet engines.
In a slight change to the format, the afternoon session focused on supply chain management and REACH implementation. A panel of experts presented short introductions to their particular supply chain issues, followed by an interactive Q&A from the audience. Steffen Schmidt from the Tungsten Industry-Conflict Mineral Council began with a look at conflict-free tungsten from mine to consumer. This was followed by ‘Cobalt Supply Chain Issues’ by David Weight from the Cobalt Development Institute, who explained in detail how the CDI and its Members were taking action on ethical supply and transparency in the cobalt industry. Joining the panel was Candida Owens of Cronimet Central Africa, who has many years’ experience in conflict-free tantalum supply.
Wrapping up the afternoon session was Karine van de Velde of the REACH Orphan Substances Consortium based in Belgium. Karine warned the audience about the 2018 REACH deadline urging them to get started on the registration process for any substances as yet unregistered as soon as possible.
Drinks reception on board the Het van Wappen, hosted by C Steinweg Group
Day two started with a rousing presentation by Markus Moll, a veteran speaker at the conference. Markus looked at alloy steel markets and their outlook, covering alloy engineering steels, stainless steels, tool steels and nickel alloys, as well as the implications for the minor metals chrome and molybdenum as a result of these market developments.
‘Tantalum and Niobium myths’ followed with David Henderson of Rittenhouse International Resources. He started with the myth of niobium being a rare metal, as well as other incorrect assumptions about the future markets of niobium and tantalum. David concluded with a look at how to properly evaluate mining projects and the ever important distinction between resources and reserves.
The final session of the conference was the diagnosis for minor metals post Fanya. Previous attendees of the MMTA’s conferences will remember the long discussions on the subject of the Fanya Metal Exchange and its effect on supplies and prices of various minor metals. The Fanya Exchange traded antimony, germanium, gallium, wolfram, indium, silicon, cobalt and bismuth and amassed huge stockpiles of the minor metals. For example, Fanya’s indium stockpiles at last count was put at 3,600 tonnes, which compares with annual global consumption in mobile phones, televisions and solar cells of less than half that.
Funsho Ojobuoboh, Consultant at Vital Materials began this session with a look at selenium in infra-red (IR) technology. IR is used in applications such as lasers and windows with minor metals such as germanium (Ge), silicon (Si), gallium arsenide (GaAs), magnesium fluoride (MgF2), as well as some aluminium alloys. Zinc selenide is one of two major IR materials by the Chemical Vapour Deposition process (the other is ZnS). This is because of its superior IR optical quality making it an excellent IR laser window (due to its low absorption coefficient), but unfortunately it is a soft material and not durable in erosion environment.
Koen t’Hoen from M&R Claushuis spoke about lead and tin residues containing minor metals and the issues surrounding their recovery. He focused in particular on mercury containing residues, including its uses and disposal and the legislative issues surrounding mercury’s use.
Wrapping up the conference, Brian O’Neill, from US-based AIM Minor Metals, looked at the indium market since the collapse of the Fanya Exchange, being one of the metals with the largest reported stocks. Brian set the scene with an analysis of supply and consumption, as well as the accuracy of Fanya’s figures in the context of current market conditions. Brian concluded that now that Fanya has ceased trading, ‘normal’ supply dynamics have been restored, but future demand increase for indium will be modest.
We would like to thank all the speakers, sponsors and delegates for making the conference such a success. Until next year!