FARMINGTON HILLS, Mich. (ResourceInvestor.com) -- It is not enough to define the minor metals as what's left over after you subtract the major metals. If you define a minor metal, as I do, as a metal the uses for which are minor, then you can see immediately that you must also add to that definition. Specifically you must cite the precise historical period of which you are speaking, because the question of which metals are 'minor' depends on 'when' you are speaking of as well as upon 'which' metal you are discussing.
A common contemporary definition for all metals, in general, is "a chemical element which at room temperature and pressure conducts electricity."
Beginning in the ancient world, and up until the mid-19th century this definition would have been meaningless, if for no better reason than the fact that up until then electricity had not yet been "discovered."
Therefore, the ancient and early modern worlds used a definition of metal that is even today still in popular use. By using the word 'metal' an ordinary person is describing a durable material that can be 'worked' into shapes by heating and hammering or by melting and pouring into a mold. Additionally it is assumed that a metal will be heavy and can be polished to be shiny. Historically, metals were usually materials that could hold an edge. Their use to support structures was unknown in the ancient world. Stone and wood were the principal building materials of human civilization until the third quarter of the 19th century.
Archaeologists have by tradition named the developmental stages of our civilization by the most common materials used at a given time to make tools and weapons, not shelter. There was first the Stone Age, then the Bronze Age, and then the Iron Age. The Iron Age ended, in my opinion, in 1865 when Henry (later Sir Henry) Bessemer built the first of his "converters." We now call this device a blast furnace and it was the first method of mass producing the alloy of iron and carbon called steel in a consistent reproducible way. By the end of the nineteenth century, ships, buildings, tools, and weapons of all sizes were principally made from steel and the Iron Age had ended.
Just to put into perspective how rapidly the age of steel was being displaced even as it grew it is instructive to note that the second of the great structural metals, which was completely unknown to the ancients, was aluminum. It was a precious metal in 1865, a minor metal from then until 1885, when a process was discovered to produce it in mass and cheaply. It became a major structural metal from 1900, when the fruits of 15 years of technical innovation and development in aluminum alloys began to bear fruit
In order to know that a metal existed it had, of course, to be first discovered. Then an accessible ore body containing it had to be found. And then techniques had to be developed so that the metal could be refined, purified, and studied both scientifically and practically.
In recent times, the 20th century in particular, the impetus for such study has been overwhelmingly the manufacturing of the implements of war. Some examples are:
Note' the above uses are cumulative. Once discovered all of these have continued to be used and so the demand for the once minor metals grows.
It is clear from this brief chart that, in fact, there are few or no permanently minor metals, only metals the uses for which go from minor to major and thus increase in value. Therefore one way to understand this asset class is by reviewing some principal, but certainly not all inclusive, categories of uses of metals
Electronic metals such as silicon, germanium, gallium, indium, and now rare earths, hafnium, tellurium, and selenium
Power metals used to construct aspects of coal, oil, nuclear solar, and wind electric generators such as molybdenum, zirconium, hafnium, silicon, selenium, tellurium, uranium, and thorium
Structural metals used to make high performance alloys such as chromium, vanadium, tungsten, molybdenum, manganese, nickel and cobalt, silicon and aluminum, and
Performance metals used in situations requiring extremes of operation such as titanium, rhenium, nickel, scandium, and yttrium.
Investing in metals by usage category requires a knowledge of the synergies of metal production, mining in particular.
For example there are the byproduct metals; i.e., those which are not produced in primary mines but are found overwhelmingly only as traces in the ores of primary metal mines. In fact the majority of all of the metals are produced in this manner.
Byproduct Minor Metals For Thin Film Photovoltaic Solar Cell (PVSC) Manufacturing
Metal Source Metal
1. Germanium, Indium Zinc
2. Selenium, Tellurium Copper, Lead
Byproduct Minor Metals for Electronic and Nuclear Uses:
1. Gallium Aluminum
2. Hafnium Titanium, Tin
3. Zirconium Titanium, Tin
4. Thorium Rare Earths
Byproduct Minor Metals for Specialty Steel Alloys:
1. Molybdenum Copper
2. Rhenium Molybdenum
Byproduct metals for environmental uses:
1. Rhodium Platinum
2. Lithium Brines (High salt 'sludges')
The most important thing to remember about byproduct minor metals is that the tail doesn't wag the dog. Unless the primary metal is produced in large volume there is no production of the byproduct. So, for gallium, for example, which is only found as a trace (5 parts per million on average ) in bauxite, the primary ore of aluminum, its production is limited to around 200 tonnes a year at this point, simply, because that is the amount that can be recovered from 39 million tonnes of aluminum, last year's production (2007).
I was asked last year "What's the play in gallium?" My answer is aluminum. All of the Gallium is produced from bauxite and no large end user is dominant.
But if I am asked "What's the play in lanthanum?" I would answer "Either it is one of the few publicly traded light rare earth mining ventures-the only possible sources of lanthanum-or a well managed profitable manufacturer of nickel metal hydride batteries for the construction of which lanthanum is critical-you can't make the battery without it. One choice would be Toyota-the world's largest consumer of Lanthanum for the production of the nickel metal hydride batteries for its best-selling Prius hybrid.
This type of answer is what you should get from your mining analyst or broker offering you opportunities in "minor metals."
If an investment you are asked to look at involves a technology based on a 'minor metal,' which today may be simply a metal of which you have never heard, you must ask if the production volume of the products of the technology is limited by the availability of the minor metal.
If so, such as the limitation of the total number of thin film photovoltaic solar cells that can be built with the unknown, but limited, small amount of the copper/lead byproduct, tellurium that is produced annually, then you must ask yourself whether your investment is just following a current "trend' or if it can have increasing value in the future if and only if new sources of tellurium are found.
Unfortunately I continue to hear that resources of all minor metals are 'earth fundamental,' e.g., that the rare earth metal, neodymium, is more common than lead in the earth's crust, so that there is no need to worry about the ultimate supply.
This type of statement is misleading and is usually intended to be so!
Only metal ore deposits that are economically feasible, i.e., concentrated in place in large quantities; accessible logistically; and recoverable by known technology with a cost less than their selling price can be considered as a source of a metal!
There are no economical primary mines for Gallium, Indium, Germanium, Selenium, Tellurium, Cadmium, or any individual Rare Earth Metal, for example.
Let me say in conclusion today that today the minor metals are really defined by the technologies they have brought into existence, and that I expect to shortly see 'metal technology funds' come into existence so that the information an investor would need to calculate and manage his risk can be packaged in a fashion that will illuminate and quantify the natural resource limitations inherent in the expansion of any modern technology from the laboratory to the consumer.
I believe that the Age of Steel (and the structural metals, aluminum and magnesium) has ended, and we have now entered the Age of The Technology Metals, formerly the minor metals. The challenge is to find the technologies for which the metals are or can become available. Investing in those searches is the best play in minor/technology metals.