MMTA International Minor Metals Conference 2019 Round-up
Day 1 – Wednesday, April 10
Somewhat overcast skies greeted us on the morning of Wednesday, April 1 in Edinburgh, Scotland, the first day of this year’s truly excellent MMTA International Minor Metals Conference. For delegates who had neither played golf at Gleneagles (kindly sponsored by ICD Alloys & Metals, LLC and ICD Europe Ltd) on the Monday, or visited the Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC) at Clydesdale University on theTuesday, the conference kicked off with a well-attended AGM. Following their election, two new members joined the board: Donna Vareha-Walsh of Indium Corporation and Joel Nields of Exotech, Inc.
As Simon Boon, the MMTA’s Chairman, said we would in his welcome remarks, we really did have “another great conference lined up” for us, not only with a “wide range of great speakers”, but also “two superb reception evenings.”
Opening the first session—What does the future hold for minor metals—and the conference, none other than Henry Sanderson, Commodities Correspondent of the FT in London, gave us a presentation entitled Volt rush: the clean energy supply chain. There is no doubt that Henry firmly made his case that supply chains really do matter and are now a field of strategic competition. EV technologies will dominate the future and batteries (and energy storage) are (and will be) of paramount importance. However, lithium may not be the universal panacea for energy storage—think also, for example, vanadium flow batteries. But one thing that will certainly need addressing is developing efficient and economic battery recycling. Henry finished on a sobering note when he concluded that, at least in this first wave of battery innovation, both the US and Europe have missed out.
Henry was followed by Jenny Watts, Principal Analyst, Automotive Demand and Technology, SFA (Oxford) who shared with us her findings and thoughts on Metals for future automobility. Placing EV into context, Jenny nicely described EV as being a total “stew” of metals. She’s not wrong there! In addition to exploring the environmental and societal megatrends that are the drivers of change in automobility and the development of transport alternatives, Jenny looked not only at electrification and powertrain evolution, but also at projections of EV usage and, in particular, regional variations (trends of which are very strong). The place of PGMs in electrification was also examined. Who knew that iridium is the “supreme” spark plug metal?
In the last session before coffee, John Porter, Trader—Special Metals, at CCMA looked into the future in his presentation The Minor Metals Supercycle: 2017 – ? But first, he looked at the past and, especially, the last commodities supercycle and how it was fueled by global economic expansion. (Indeed, it was paused by a global economic recession.) Living as we are now largely in a low inflation environment, the question remains: Did 2017 and 2018 mark the beginning of a minor metals supercycle—especially “in to-day’s technology-focused manufacturing environment”?
After a restorative coffee (or cup of tea) the morning’s second session—New markets and opportunities—kicked off with Jessica Young, Sales Director, Shaanxi Head-Moly, taking us around the world to learn about The global role of China as a major producer and consumer of molybdenum. Jessica explained that the production of moly, both globally and in China, has been growing since 2015, with China accounting for 37% of global production and 36% of consumption in 2018. The majority of consumption in China is accounted for by high temperature alloy steel (27%) and stainless steel (39%). In 2019, the Chinese government reduced the VAT rate on manufacturing to 13% (from 16%) in order to enhance the competitiveness of Chinese moly products around the world.
From moly we moved on to cobalt with a presentation from Alina Racu, Regional Nickel and Cobalt Analyst of MMC Norilsk Nickel in Switzerland. Alina’s presentation, entitled Norilsk—a sustainable cobalt solution looked not only at what Norilsk is currently doing, but also the continuing (and growing) importance of cobalt sourced from the DRC. Alina described cobalt (and EV) as being a long-story, with EV driving demand in the future. Another driver will be the aerospace industry, where no slowdown in demand is envisaged over the next 10 years or so. She saw the market as likely being fairly balanced by 2025.
The final presentation before lunch came from Xiao Lin, Senior Scientist, Institute of Process Engineering, Chinese Academy of Sciences. Xiao Lin took us through Recycling metals in catalysts by “upgrading resource efficiency on the whole life-cycle”. He explained that the supply chain keeps changing, the leading players keep shifting, as do the producing regions. In one area, however, there has been significant change: China has abdicated its role as the waste dumping ground of the world. With spent catalysts now listed as hazardous waste in the country, there has been a major shift from processing auto catalysts to processing spent power station SCR (selective catalytic reduction) catalysts. Xiao Lin rounded off his presentation by saying that China would be happy to export its recycling technology in the field to the EU, UK, etc.
After an excellent buffet lunch, delegates were offered the opportunity of joining one of three different afternoon break-out discussion sessions: 1) the regulatory environment and its impact on minor metals; 2) trade and supply chains; and, 3) recycling and specialty alloys. With each led by two or three acknowledged authorities in the themed topic, the discussions were, at the very least, informative, interesting and, in some instances, really quite lively. In chatting with participants afterwards, a recurring comment was how much they had learned and how useful the discussions had been.
Before dispersing for dinner, drinks, or “whatever”, at the deliciously early hour of five o’clock, Ireland Alloys kindly sponsored the tasting of four equally delicious, and totally different, gins distilled in Scotland. Each was served with a “matching” tonic water to complement its taste and aroma. If the howls of protest were anything to go by when the event was, by necessity, drawn to a close, everybody had a fine time.
Day 2 – Thursday, April 11
The first session—Technological developments—on the second day of the conference opened with Scott Coffin, Business Development Manager at ATI Metals telling us about Minor metals in new technologies. Scott started by explaining that, with respect to the metals he would be looking at (zirconium, hafnium, titanium, and niobium), “new” was very much a relative term. Whilst a number of the uses he looked at were new uses, but in existing technologies, for example zirconium in small modular nuclear reactors (with the “small modular” aspect being new), a particularly interesting new use of the metal was in the production of methionine, which is an amino acid used in chicken feed (who knew!). Scott then took us through the other three metals, demonstrating admirably how historic and new uses so often overlap.
Hot on Scott’s heels was Suzannah Lipmann, Managing Director of Lipmann Walton, who introduced us (many, probably, for the first time) to Amorphous alloys, 3D printing & 5G. Amorphous alloys (developed at California Institute of Technology, very often referred to as bulk metallic glass—BMG—and most commonly available under the brand names Liquidmetal® and Vitreloy®), are both solid and liquid and neither monocrystalline nor polycrystalline. Rather, they have no crystal nucleation. Their properties include: strength, corrosion resistance, hardness and scratch resistance, high elastic limit, and are mildly diamagnetic. Suzannah showed how they could be thermoplastically formed and processed by casting, injection moulding, and 3D printing and that, with all this going for them, they are ideal for our forthcoming 5G world.
Taking us up to coffee (once again kindly sponsored by Exotech), was Professor Keith Ridgway CBE, Executive Dean of the ARMC Group and Executive Chair of the Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC) with his presentation Pushing the boundaries of manufacturing processes. For those conference-goers who did not have the the chance to visit the AFRC on Tuesday, Professor Ridgway illustrated just how he and his teams are developing the use of machine tools to the full extent of their capabilities (the tools that is!) to increase efficiency. Two examples in particular demonstrated just some of what they have been able to achieve: through skiving they have been able to reduce gear production time from 2½ hours to 3½ minutes and, by using flow forming, they have been able to reduce the production of some landing gear parts from 120 hours (when cast) to one hour and 40 minutes. And all of this has been achieved by using existing machine tools. Professor Ridgway concluded by looking at the latest drivers of change: the 4th Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0)—cyber-physical systems; the Internet of Things—more things, more connected; and, Big Data—more data, from more things that are more connected.
The last speakers after coffee, and rounding off the conference with the session entitled Outlook and role of China, were Hans Vercammen, Division Director Specialty Chemicals, Campine nv and Mandy Yin, Product Director, Zhuzhou Keneng New Material Co., Ltd., speaking, respectively, about Development in the antimony market and The Chinese indium market after Fanya. Hans provided a detailed update of the antimony market for 2019, taking us
through not only some historic (and interesting!) uses of the metal, but also its current main uses with half global demand going into flame retardants. He noted, thereafter, that antimony has been moving up on the 2017 list of Critical Raw Materials for the EU, not least for the following reasons: a high supply risk, its economic importance in flame retardants, a lack of viable substitutes, and its low end-of-life recycling input rate—estimated currently at 28%. Finally, Hans looked at the concept of recycling the metal from municipal waste, not least because fly ashes can contain about 0.14% antimony.
Looking especially at indium, Mandy Yin rounded off our morning, and the conference, on a somewhat somber note, as she provided us with the latest update on how the Fanya Metal Exchange debacle continues to unfold (or not!). If it wasn’t before, it is now quite obvious that the exchange was just one massive Ponzi scheme, a fraud that managed to ensnare over 220,000 individual investors. With respect to the exchange’s indium in particular, in 2015 there were some 3,066 tons of the metal in warehouses (with many brands in the inventory unfamiliar to the market), at the time well over three years’ annual global production of the metal. Earlier this year, with a signal lack of success, the Kunming Intermediate People’s Court attempted to auction off a total of 34.64 tons of indium—there was not one bid. The result: “sentiment turned to even pessimistic, price fell sharply” and, a supreme understatement, “Fanya’s huge inventory is an anxiety to the whole industry.” However, there may be a glimmer of light, when asked if anyone had audited the physical indium metal, Mandy replied: “No.” So, could the figure for inventory actually have been inflated for marketing purposes? We’ll probably never know.
From the many conversations we have had, once again, the conference, and everything around it, appears to have been a great success with, not least, the choice of Edinburgh much approved! And, from the persistent buzz of activity alone over the duration of the conference, there was obviously quite some networking going on. For the third year running, too, we were able to record over 300 delegates. Perhaps we can equal, or beat, this figure next year when we gather for the 2020 conference in Charleston, South Carolina, in the USA on April 22nd through April 24th.
In the meantime, though, the MMTA and Metal Events would like to thank the sponsors (ICD Alloys & Metals, LLC and ICD Europe Ltd, Exotech, Ireland Alloys, AFRC & Sovereign International Metals & Alloys Inc.) and all the speakers who made this event such a resounding success. And for those registered conference delegates who have not yet done so, all the excellent presentations can be downloaded from the Metal Events website.