Welcome to the May-June Crucible issue.
With our premier annual event, the International Minor Metals Conference and the MMTA annual general meeting now behind us—see this issue for the conference roundup and the results of the MMTA board elections — we look forward to ensuring the rest of the association’s 50th year offers our members and the wider minor metals community plenty more opportunities to network and access a wealth of information.
We hope you have an opportunity for a summer break before activity picks up towards the end of the third quarter and the LME week approaches in early October. During the LME Week, the MMTA will be holding its 50th Anniversary Dinner on Tuesday 10th October. Please visit the MMTA website to book your tickets. Sponsorship opportunities are available for both the 50th anniversary drinks reception and the dinner. If you are interested in sponsoring this event, please contact Freya Kerwin email@example.com
Also on 10th October, the MMTA is again partnering with the critical materials consultancy Project Blue for the Critical Materials Forum. See the MMTA website for details, and if you are interested in taking part as a speaker, please let us know.
We are excited to be partnering with China’s leading consultancy Antaike and the China Nonferrous Metals Industry Association (CNIA) on the China International Minor Metals Forum 2023, to be held in Wuhan, China on 25-26 October. MMTA members have been invited to speak, and if you are interested in giving a presentation, especially on the metals in focus this year — indium, gallium, germanium, bismuth, selenium, tellurium, rhenium, cesium and rubidium — please get in touch. You can email firstname.lastname@example.org For more details see page 21 or visit the MMTA website.
In the past year and not least at the MMTA conference, we have had many conversations about sustainability and the rising importance of environmental, social and corporate government (ESG) reporting and compliance. The industry’s carbon footprint—from production, to shipping, to material handling— is a kay part of this conversation, and the MMTA would like to help you navigate this complex issue. Watch this space.
Between the devil and the deep blue sea
As anyone who has watched the Titan submersible’s ill-fated dive to the Titanic unfold would be keenly aware, the relationship between emerging materials science and the force of nature that is the sea is a precarious one. Due diligence in the materials one uses in high-pressure, corrosive environments and ensuring that everything is tested to destruction is just one aspect of this relationship. Reliant as it is on natural resources, the metals industry has learned that you play fast and loose with nature at your peril.
The finite nature of resources of critical metals for its ever growing energy needs has driven humanity to look high and low for new sources— including deep down on the sea-floor. There, polymetallic nodules containing the mix of battery metals: manganese, nickel, cobalt, plus copper are found. But are we plunging again head-first into the unknown?
In July, the International Seabed Authority —a UN body overseeing the high-seas that lie beyond any national waters, will meet in Jamaica to decide whether to permit deep-sea mining. The vast tracts of ocean the ISA is tasked with safeguarding are described in the UN 1982 Convention on the Laws of the Sea as the “common heritage of mankind’”.
Views on deep-sea mining are more deeply divided than the Mariana trench—a range of countries as varied as France to Fiji, Chile and New Zealand on the ISA’s council—and even Australia’s research body CSIRO— have called for a moratorium on exploiting the ocean floor.
In the run up to the ISA meeting, marine scientists warned that the world ocean database, used to inform the environmental aspect of ISA’s decision making, is fatally flawed— full of huge gaps in our knowledge on marine ecology. As many as 5,000 species previously unknown to mankind have been discovered in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) of the Pacific Ocean. A study led by the UK Natural History Museum shows that 90% of species discovered in CZZ are unnamed and estimates that 6,000-8,000 more are yet to be discovered. This the richest known and most explored mineral area that the ISA estimates holds more than 21 billion tonnes or polymetallic nodules.
On the heels of this, and coinciding with the World Ocean Day in June, shipping company Maersk sold its remaining shares in Canadian prospective deep-sea miner, The Metals Company (TMC). Backed by the Kingdom of Tonga and the republics of Nauru and Kiribati, TMC holds an exploration permit in CZZ and hopes to start extracting there as early as 2024, if deep sea mining is legalised. A more important investor is Glencore, which has an offtake agreement for 50% of the metals TMC hopes to produce.
Miners argue than untold riches of green energy metals can be lifted from the seabed in a clean way, without disrupting the ecosystem. Marine ecologists are unconvinced. The continued discoveries of unknown species in the deep — and that even more are still unknown—sings out loudly that “we don’t know what we’ve got ‘till it’s gone”.
The coming weeks will show if the tide has turned.
Water shortage hits Ukrainian ferroalloy producers
The 6 June explosion of the Kakhovka Dam on the Dnipro river in Ukraine, which had been controlled by Russian forces, has not only caused devastating floods in Ukraine’s south, but has drained key reservoirs as the water receded. Upstream of the dam, the country’s second largest ferro-alloys producer Zaporizhia Ferroalloys Plant (ZFP) served by the Dnipro hydroelectric dam, has escaped unscathed. But the country’s—and Europe’s—largest producer, Nikopol Ferroalloys Plant (NFP) has had its reservoir drained and has cut operations to a minimum. While work is underway to create a temporary reservoir, its community — and the town of Nikopol are relying on emergency organisations, such as the regional Red Cross, to deliver drinking water, Sergey Kudryavtsev, executive director of the Ukrainian Ferroalloy Producers’ Association (UKRFA) told the MMTA. “Worse, the thousand workers that had been employed at the plant now have no work to support them,” he added. UKRFA’s member manganese mines have stopped operations. As flood water receded in the mining town of Marhanets, explosive devices planted along its roads mean drinking water can’t be delivered safely.
The UkrFA has put out the following appeal:
“We would like to take this opportunity to inform you about the lack of water not only necessary for the work of enterprises but also of drinking water for the employees of the mining and processing plants in Ukraine. We are currently trying to manage the water supply to the affected areas, but we are facing a growing shortage and high demand for water filters for domestic use. Therefore, we would like to ask you for the support of the employees of the Ukrainian enterprises by organising the delivery of water filters for domestic use to the borders of Ukraine.”
Any company or organisation willing to help can contact UKRFA at email@example.com
Wartime disruptions, including reduced supply of electricity from the Russian-occupied Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Station have had a devastating impact on Ukraine’s ferroalloys, already prior to the Kakhovka dam explosion. Ferro-alloys production at NFP and ZFP in the first five months of 2023 were down 53% year on year to 124,700 tonnes, according to UkrFA figures. This was mainly 116,970t of silico-manganese, almost all from NFP. Ferro-silicon production, all at ZFP came to less than 6,000t, about a third of last year’s. No manganese metal was produced. The two plants made 1,740t of ferro-manganese between them, down 91% year on year. One mine produced 27,810t of Mn concentrate, down 90.5%.
An Anglo-American not-quite-trade-deal
In June, the US’s Joe Biden administration and the UK’s Rishi Sunak’s signed the Atlantic Declaration launched by the allies with a nostalgic wartime-style poster you see here. Possibly just as well because mutual defence industry interests featured highly on its aspirational to-do list. While falling short of any kind of trade agreement, the Atlantic Declaration accompanied $14bn of new US investment into the UK, and it is a wide-ranging strategic partnership that covers clean energy, nuclear power, advanced technologies, data sharing, defence and mutual access to supply chains. Under the Critical Minerals Agreement, US vehicle manufacturers using UK-mined or UK-processed critical raw materials (lithium, nickel and rare earths, we are looking at you) will be eligible for the same tax credits as those from US domestic sources under the initially exclusive looking Inflation Reduction Act. This scheme provides a $3,750 incentive for each vehicle, on conditions including that the critical minerals used in its production – primarily battery metals– are sourced from the US or a critical minerals agreement partner, which the UK now is. The UK is already a net exporter of such materials to the US.
The Biden administration said it will also seek to persuade Congress to designate the UK as a “domestic source” for the purposes of Title III of the US Defense Procurement Act. In March this year President Biden issued a presidential determination authorising the US military to use Title III – and its associated funding authorisation—to speed up the development of US manufacturing capabilities, including direct procurement and acceleration of prototypes by the Department of Defense of technology used specifically for hypersonic weapons. As this procurement targets domestic sources, designating the UK as an equivalent means UK suppliers will be able benefit from US government defence investment.
Australia publishes a Critical Minerals Strategy
The Australian government has had a busy quarter in the critical minerals space. In April it signed a new Statement of Intent with the UK government to strengthen upstream and downstream supply chain co-operation between the two countries. A month on in late May it signed a similar commitment with the US to enhance bilateral co-operation under a Climate, Critical Minerals and Clean Energy Transformation Compact. Both are friend-shoring in action, with Australia’s allies—united and divided by a common language— keen to draw on its vast resources of minerals such as lithium to feed their EV revolution. There are also mutual interests in developing battery technologies, hydrogel fuel, and bringing investment into Australian manufacturing and jobs. A month on, in June, Australia unveiled its own long-awaited Critical Minerals Strategy 2023-2030. Its objectives are to :
- create diverse, resilient and sustainable supply chains through strong and secure international partnerships
- build sovereign capability in critical minerals processing
- use our critical minerals to help Australia become a renewable energy superpower extract more value from
its resources onshore, which creates jobs and economic opportunities, including for regional and First Nations communities.
To this end, the Australian government is investing up to A$50.5 million to establish the Australian Critical Minerals Research and Development Hub which will bring together Geoscience Australia, CSIRO and nuclear research agency ANSTO, and support international research co-operation. The A$50mln Resources Technology for Critical Minerals Trailblazer project will fund research and technology acceleration. In Northern Australia, it will ask the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF) to earmark $500mln to support projects that align with the Critical Minerals Strategy. It will establish the National Reconstruction Fund, which includes A$1 billion for value-add in resources and A$3 bln for renewables and low emissions technologies.
BGS unveils its five-year strategy for UK geoscience
Meanwhile in the UK British Geological Survey has published its strategy for 2023-2028 focusing on four main pillars:
- Maps and models for the 21st century
- A more secure energy transition
- Improved water security
- Living with geological hazards
There will be an increased focus on mapping the UK and its sea shelf; subsurface resources, including critical minerals and circularity for renewable energy; geothermal energy and energy storage , and groundwater resources. Investment in hydrocarbons research into set to take a back seat as BGS targets clean energy.
India inks Airbus deals at the Paris Air Show
It was Paris’s turn to host the International Air Show in 2023, and Airbus ruled on its home turf, securing 821 aircraft orders including for 500 A320neo family from IndiGo and 250 jets in total from Air India. Boeing booked 230 orders and got to show off its newest 737 MAX 10 and 777-9 in flight displays.
Photos © Polina Sparks 2023, 2016