It is late in the rare-earth “boom” and so lately the line between the two cultures has begun to blur in the rare-earth “space.”
Junior mining is basically the mineral-data mining of the Earth. The data are discovered and recorded by field geologists and then it is filtered through layers of physical and chemical analysis, until for a given volume of the Earth’s crust, a picture can be drawn in three dimensions, of the distribution of specific minerals within the chosen volume. If there are known mechanical and chemical procedures for recovering any valuable metals or minerals in the defined volume, and the result of those procedures is a product, or products that can be sold for more than the cost of production in volumes above the break-even cost of the venture then, if those factors have additionally a high probability of continuing in time, we have a mineable ore body that is economic.
The day of reckoning is upon the rare-earth juniors. Those of them who have no knowledge of supply-and-demand-based pricing, or the geographic distribution of demand, or who have no knowledge of finance will be gone first. Even among those that survive this first cut, if they believe that the goal of a business is anything other than producing consistently a competitive profit from selling products produced at the lowest cost with the lowest possible break-even threshold, then they will be gone next.
The survivors will be those ventures which can sell their product at a profit, at a place in the supply chain which their management and marketing skills can maintain.
The Vatican in Rome regularly issues statements of Catholic doctrine, which are intended to be the “correct” interpretations of questions of faith for believers. These statements are written in church Latin and the translation of the category aspect of the title of all such statements is a papal “bull.” This is the short form of the Latin word bulla, used to describe the clay stamp traditionally applied to such edicts, and from which in English, we get the word ‘bulletin.’
I consider this article to be a “bulletin” to investors in the rare-earth space.
I am not, nor do I pretend to be infallible, but I recognize that much of what passes for interpretation in the mainstream media of the announcements that regularly flow from junior miners, or in some cases from companies actually running mining operations, is just plain “bull.”
If a junior miner is to survive, it must either sell its ore body or develop a profitable mining operation. There has been little interest by the major mining companies in purchasing the properties of the current rare-earth juniors. Therefore to survive, the juniors will have to try to put their ore bodies into production as mines. This means that the clock is ticking. There will be no more than a dozen rare-earth ventures outside of China in actual development by the end of 2014. The global REE demand outside of China needs very little additional supply of the LANREs if it does not ramp up its metal-, alloy-, and component-manufacturing supply chain. Certainly there is way too much potential and/or planned production of the LANREs chasing too small a market.
It is just the opposite for the HANREs. China is short of these very critical materials, so that even if no supply chain at all is constructed or enhanced outside of China for using such raw materials, there will be a demand for them.
The problem with the HANREs market is that it is not understood as a free-standing market by non-Chinese investors. Additionally it has turned out that the highest grades of HANREs as a proportion of total REEs, are in hard-rock ores and tin and uranium residues, the “metallurgy” (cracking) of which has not been successfully (i.e. economically) achieved to date. I believe, however, that the metallurgies of the hard-rock ores have been addressed with sufficient success outside of China, by companies attempting this endeavor, to allow me to recommend to my institutional-investment clients that they fund the development of the best-managed and best-sited ones.
The skills to extract the HANREs into a pregnant leach solution, and to separate the individual HANREs from that solution are in very short supply. No one, as of yet, outside of China has addressed the commercial separation of the HANREs. Innovation Metals, a company co-founded by my TMR colleague Gareth (and to which I am an advisor), is attempting to do something about this, with its goal of creating the world’s first independent rare-earth separation facilities, to toll-treat rare-earth concentrates. Do not be fooled by those who say that all you have to do is “buy” a property and “feed” the ore into an existing LANRE separation system. This is flim-flam.
I predict that at least one, perhaps two American companies, and one European company will be producing HANREs competitively with the Chinese within three to five years from hard-rock mining. I further predict that it is these operations which will catalyze the re-birth of a non-Chinese total supply chain for the production of Dy-modified REPMs. There are a number of promising Canadian, Southern African, and Australian HANRE-themed junior miners, who I believe will become suppliers to the total supply chains located in the USA, Europe, Japan, or even China. Their ability to do so will be based on competitive pricing.
I am not mentioning Great Western Minerals Group’s South African/UK integrated operations, because they are now in a group of one, at least with regard to the commercial production and utilization in the downstream total supply chain of the heavy rare earth Dy. As far as I know their output of Dy is fully taken up by their customers and is only a market factor in the reduction of non-Chinese demand for Dy it will cause (less than 3% of the current market).
The first step in the production of a REE is the mining of an ore containing a mineral that has REEs in its molecular or physical composition. In simple English, a rare-earth mineral is one in which the REEs are either chemically bound into, or in a few cases, just physically attached (adsorbed) onto a substrate mineral. The ore at Molycorp’s Mountain Pass mine is an example of the first and the famous adsorption clays in China’s southern provinces are an example of the second.