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Rare Metals:

Rare Metals

An overview of Tantalum, Niobium, Cobalt, Zirconium, Gallium and Indium

While often confused with the Rare Earth Elements (REEs) and Minerals (REMs) (1), the Rare Metals and Metalloids (RMs) are different. RMs share some common features but they are seldom found together (with the exception of tantalum & niobium) and are seldom found with the REEs. Metalloids exhibits properties between a metal and a non-metal, they have a metallic appearance, but they are brittle and only fair conductors of electricity. Chemically, they mostly behave as nonmetals. They can form alloys with metals.

The RMs are tantalum, niobium, cobalt, zirconium, indium, gallium, and lithium (discussed in a separate posting (2)). RMs are mined in substantial quantities that meet current world demand. They are also considered critical or strategic metals due to their use and importance in energy and technology applications.

While relatively small in annual production, they still are very important:
    Cobalt – 112,000 tonnes (2014)
    Gallium – 440 tonnes (2014)
    Indium – 820 tonnes (2014)
    Niobium – 59,000 tonnes (2014)
    Tantalum – 1,200 tonnes (2014)
    Zirconium – 1,500 tonnes (2014)

Properties and Applications

Rare metals and metalloids exhibit a wide range of chemical and physical properties that make them important in energy and technology applications.

Tantalum and Niobium are the most chemically linked pair of RMs. They are typically found together in the ore columbite-tantalite ("coltan"). Niobium was originally called columbium, which is where columbite and coltan got their name. Tantalum is primarily used in capacitors for microelectronics due to its high heat and electrical conductivity. Niobium can be used as an alternative to tantalum capacitors, but it is used primarily in alloys for superconducting magnets, rockets, turbines, and medical instruments.

Cobalt is used in alloys for aircraft engine parts and in alloys with corrosion/wear resistant uses. It is also widely used in batteries and in electroplating. Cobalt salts are used to impart blue and green colors in glass and ceramics. Radioactive 60Co is used in the treatment of cancer. Cobalt is essential to many living creatures and is a component of vitamin B12. Cobalt is also used in samarium-cobalt permanent magnets (the less powerful predecessors of neodymium-based magnets). These are used in guitar pickups and high speed motors.

Indium and gallium are the metalloids, and the two elements are chemically similar to each other. Indium is used in the LCD displays for TV screens, computer, and smartphone screens. Gallium is most often used in semiconductors, in the form of gallium arsenide (GaAs). Gallium arsenides ability to produce light radiation from electricity is valuable for production of integrated circuits, LEDs, laser diodes, and solar cells.

Zirconium is used to create heat and radiation resistant alloys, which are often used in nuclear power plants. Zirconium alloys can also serve functional roles in phones and computers (or mobile and computer technologies).

Geology and Mining

High-grade ores naturally occur in specific regions within a few countries. This is a problem since the highly localized nature of these sources implies that the country with the highest grade source, and subsequently the best access to it, will have the ability to sell at lower prices.

Tantalum and niobium are typically found in ores together, primarily in coltan. 80% of coltan production is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and sold to the highest bidder by militias of surrounding countries. Niobium is also produced by itself with the majority coming from Brazil followed by Canada and Australia. Besides the Congo, Tantalum reserves are in Australia and Brazil.

Cobalt is typically found in copper or nickel ores. 40% of cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where it is primarily mined by artisanal miners who sell the ore to foreign companies, mainly in China.

There are no sites specially dedicated to mining indium. It is found in very low quantities in zinc ore. China produces over 60% of the worlds indium.

Like Indium, Gallium is often produced as a byproduct of Zinc and Aluminum mining. According the USGS, "data on world production of primary gallium are unavailable because data on the output of the few producers are considered to be proprietary." Recycled gallium from GaAs scrap is judged in some estimates to make up as much as half of the world supply.

80% of world zirconium comes from igneous rock and gravel mined in South Africa and Australia. Zirconium is more abundant in the earth’s crust than copper and lead, although most of its sources are not economically viable to mine. However, as demand continues to increase and prices continue to rise, their viability may increase.

MIke Albrecht, P.E.

o   40+ years’ experience in the mining industry with strong mineral processing experience in precious metals, copper, industrial minerals, coal, and phosphate

o   Operational experience in precious metals, coal, and phosphate plus in petrochemicals.

o   Extensive experience performing studies and determining feasibility in the US and international (United States, Canada, Mexico, Ecuador, Columbia, Venezuela, Chile, China, India, Indonesia, and Greece).

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