If you thought our industry was volatile…

Posted by David Sear
In the CRA business we are used to “significant” price hikes in elements such as nickel, molybdenum, etc that can affect the overall cost of stainless steels. They can be a major concern to both buyers and sellers of stainless steels and similar alloys

Spare a thought, then, for those industries that rely on so-called rare earths. Prices of these commodities have literally sky-rocketed this year.

Prices of many rare earths have shot up 500% since the start of 2011.

In fact, some rare earths are now 500% more expensive that they were at the start of 2011, reflecting a major imbalance between supply and demand.

Most people will probably shrug their shoulders on hearing the names of these elements. For example, who outside the scientific community has ever heard of scandium, yttrium (not to be confused of course with ytterbium), neodynium and dysprosium (which sounds more like a disease that a metal).

However, mention some of the products that rely on these rare earths, and it’s a different kettle of fish. How about television sets? iPods? Electric vehicles? Fluorescent lights? Train engines? CAT scan equipment? Even missiles? The list is almost without end.

Now, quantitively speaking each of these products may only contain a tiny amount of a certain rare earth, but without it, the technology simply won’t work.

The widely-accepted cause for the lack of supply and the attendant price rises is that officials in China are looking to tighten their control over the marketplace.

Now here comes the obvious question: how come China has such an influence?

Well, simple – that country now produces more than ninety-five per cent of the world’s rare earths. In the past couple of decades, mines in other regions have closed down, due to stricter legislation amongst other reasons.

Now, it would appear, the Chinese government is also enforcing tighter industry standards, which has led to a drop in production. It has also put export restrictions in place, causing some to suggest it is simply trying to promote domestic industry.

In addition, the effects may well have been further exacerbated by speculation and stockpiling.

How the issue will pan out is open to debate. Some view the current position as an unsustainable bubble. Elsewhere, mining companies are looking to re-open existing plans or even invest in new ones.

It may sound surprising, but the consequence could be industry oversupply in a few years’ time, according to some analysts.

Like I said: all makes our own sector seem quite stable in comparison.
Share your thoughts on the price of rare earths or other important elements with the editor.
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