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Jack Lifton: Safeguarding Our Future Supply of Rare Earths
Source: The Gold Report; interviewed by Karen Roche, Publisher (12/11/09)
"Price may not be as important as security of supply," says Jack Lifton, an independent consultant with more than 45 years of experience in sourcing nonferrous strategic metals. In the U.S., our dependence on rare metals is undermined by the simple fact that we're not producing any. Given that China now controls 95% of these 'technology metals' and the world is projected to eat 200,000 tons of rare earth metals near 2015, Jack tells The Gold Report we need to jumpstart our own domestic supply chain.
The Gold Report: Jack, we hear you're starting on a documentary, "On the Green Road." Tell us a bit about it, and what you mean by "Green Road."
Jack Lifton: I came up with that title because no matter what the attitude of the individual is towards being "green," there really isn't any other path for us now. My proposed documentary "On the Green Road" will follow the path that a rare earth metal takes from the mine to the market, so that the consumer can see the necessary steps required to make the technological devices upon which our quality of life depends. If the Green Road is the path to the future we need to get on it and stay on it right now.
Six hundred million people in the Western world are enjoying a life increasingly dominated by technology that we don't understand. In particular, we don't understand how it is made. What I see in America is a reluctance to admit that the green road starts in the black earth. We have to mine and refine the minerals and metals into forms which can then be fabricated into forms which can then be made into parts which can then be assembled into the technology devices we use to conserve energy. Everything starts at the mine or at the oil or gas well.
In the West, electronic devices using electricity produced by a huge network of generating devices control our transportation, communication, and our environment. We've got a grid that we talk about as if we understand it, but it's an extremely complicated system. We ignore the fact that we produce and distribute oil and its by-products, metals and their compounds and alloys. Nobody pays attention to that. All we do is say we've got to stop doing this and stop doing that. We have to start educating everyone as to how a metal becomes a radio or how a metal becomes a battery, how a battery propels a car.
TGR: I heard you speak recently at the Hard Assets Conference about supply issues in terms of expanding wind and solar technologies. Can you explain some of those supply constraints?
JL: Yes. In the United States, Canada, and Western Europe we are consuming most of the supplies of the technology metals. Now we're facing six billion people in the rest of the world whose standard of living is growing rapidly and we do not have ten times the amount of materials used to create the good life in the West to create the same standard of living for the entire world.
I don't mean to be a doomsayer, but if the Chinese government wants its own people to have the standard of living that people in Los Angeles have today, it's going to mean that China must use all of its own natural resources to improve its standard of living and its quality of life, which will mean that our standard of living will have to decline. Why? Because there are some materials—for example, the rare earths—that China controls 100% of the supply of today. And as China's economy is growing, China is requiring more and more of these materials for its own domestic economy.
Ten years ago China exported 75% of its production of rare earth metals to the rest of the world. Today it exports less than 25%, even though the production in the last 10 years has more than doubled. So that should tell you what's going on here. This is not a conflict. This is economic reality.
Now I'm using the rare earths as an example of something I think is very much misunderstood in the West. The rare earth metals were originally discovered in Europe and originally produced commercially en masse in California. The largest rare earth deposit in the world of its kind was discovered in California in 1947. It was put into production and by 1984 that site, Mountain Pass, California, near the Nevada border on M-15, was producing 35% of the world's rare earth metals and 100% of the domestic needs of those metals here in the U.S. That was 25 years ago. Today that mine is producing nothing and approximately 95% of the rare earth metals are today produced in the People's Republic of China. The United States imports all its rare earth metals from the People's Republic of China.
Why? Because between 1984 and 2009, Chinese production of those metals ramped up to the point where the Chinese decided to lower the price so that they could sell more metals so they could mine more metal and employ more people. They basically were able to sell these metals into the market, including to the United States, at a price less than the cost of producing it in California. Well, if you believe in a global economy, then you say, that's how capitalism works.
There are now other issues arising besides price, which is what shut down the Mountain Pass mines. Price may not be as important as security of supply. Do we really need rare earth metals to maintain our style of life? We cannot force the Chinese to sell them to us. The Chinese have an internal priority to develop their domestic economy. China's issue is the need of the Chinese economy to grow and to improve the quality and style of life of the Chinese people. We have become so dependent on rare metals in general and rare earth metals in particular in our technological economy and at the same time we've simply ignored the fact that we are not producing them in the West.
TGR: Doesn't the U.S. have plenty of metals? Why aren't we supplying more of what we need?
JL: The United States has the largest distribution of different metals and minerals of any country in the world. The National Mining Association, on their website, nma.org, shows that we have 76 minerals and metals in the United States in sufficient quantity to supply our needs. However, in the last 10 years we have lost our self-sufficiency in between 14 and 25 metals and minerals. Not that we don't have them, but that we don't produce them.
The reason for this is that we have been going global in our economic outlook. For example, Chile produces 25% of the world's copper. Well, the United States was always self-sufficient in copper. Now we're not. Now we're beginning to import copper because it's cheaper to buy Chilean copper than to keep mining more of it in Utah. The U.S. was always self-sufficient in iron. Today we import 30% of our iron ore to make steel here because it's been, up till this moment, cheaper for us to do this than to produce it here. But now something new is happening. The demand in the rest of the world is increasing at such a rate that the United States must, for the first time in its history, compete.
We need to produce wealth here and not just consume it. One way we can produce wealth is by reactivating, for example, the rare earth mines we have and by starting new ones in the United States and North America. If we don't start producing our own critical and strategic metals and minerals, we're going to find that our industry, and anything we want that uses those materials, will be made in other places such as China. We'll be at the mercy of those economies as to whether they have a surplus to ship us. China is a dynamic growing economy, which has four times as many people as we do and maybe 20% of our GDP. So, on average, they're way behind us, but they're growing and they are consuming their own production of energy, minerals, and metals and they do not believe that they must export those things to us, either as raw materials or finished goods if there's a Chinese demand for them and they're trying to increase Chinese demand.
TGR: So North America, the U.S. in particular, has a wealth of these minerals within their own borders. When does the price either get to the point that you get miners who now say, hey, I can make money by mining these rare earths here or the government comes in and decides they're going to subsidize the exploration and the initial development of these mines?
JL: I don't know. I'll tell you what the real problem in the United States is. These industries are too small to return a profit in a short time. In other words, if you look at a rare earth mining opportunity in the U.S. like Molycorp, or a newly named company, U.S. Rare Earths (both privately owned), you have to think, well, it'll cost how much to develop the mine and how much does the product sell for. If you want a return on your investment in one, two, or three years, mining isn't the place for you. So, yes, in order to get mining going, the government has to subsidize it. That's absolutely correct. Or you have to assemble something new in the United States, which is a vertically integrated company.
TGR: At the conference there were companies claiming to be either producing or almost ready to produce these rare earth metals. Will that solve the supply issue?
JL: The problem is it'll solve the issue of the first step in the supply chain. We'll have the mines in North America producing the concentrates we need. But those materials then need to be refined and purified into the pure metals. Then those metals need to be made into fabricated forms that people who make magnets, electronics, cars, and batteries can use. Then those devices have to be made from them and put into products that ultimately wind up in your driveway, in your drawer, in your purse, in your pocket. The problem is we have yawning gaps in that supply chain in the U.S. The fact is if we were producing rare earth metals in North America today, those ore concentrates would go to China for refining. We do not have any refining capability in the United States today. It's all been shut down.
TGR: So these companies who are mining this will not be able to refine it?
JL: That's right. Those companies, in the tradition of mining, have a plan to dig up the ore, remove everything but the mineral—that's called concentrating—then in the case of rare earths, they'll probably separate those minerals into the constituent forms of the individual metals, the oxides or whatever end form. And then they stop.
Now the next step is to take those individual metal concentrates and make them into metals. Let's say we're talking about neodymium. We take the neodymium. It will come from the mine in the form of an oxide. You make it into neodymium metal. That's usually one company. And then another company will make special alloys of neodymium iron and boron, for example, to make magnets. What that company will do is they'll supply it to a magnet maker. The magnet maker will do their work on it and make it into a magnet. The magnet will then go to a generator producer or a motor producer or a speaker producer or computer hard drive producer and they'll use the magnet as a critical part of some end use product, which will then end up in the shop that you'll buy it from. That includes a car, a computer hard drive, a laser, things like that. What we don't have in America are any of the steps beyond concentrating the ore. That's the problem.
TGR: So, at this point we aren't concentrating the ore because we're not currently producing rare earths?
JL: That is correct. We are not currently in North America producing any rare earth ore at all.
TGR: So having the capabilities to refine if there's no production here is somewhat irrelevant.
JL: We have one refinery running at this point, which is Mountain Pass, California. It's still working off concentrates last produced in 2002 and they restarted the refinery. Mountain Pass is producing two tons of neodymium praseodymium every day, which is a commercial form that needs further work and, also, four tons of lanthanum. Both of those products are produced as oxides and those materials go to their customers, one of which is in Japan and the other one they didn't state. Let's put it this way. Nobody in the United States today has the capability of taking those materials and making the pure metals from them. So that is today almost entirely done in China.
TGR: Would Mountain Pass have the ability to either scale up what they're doing now?
JL: Yes, but it will take years and a lot of money. Mountain Pass—it's Molycorp—has announced that they plan to produce the metals when they resume mining, but they need to build a rare earth metal refinery and get it going. So we're talking about a lot of money and a lot of years because no one in the United States has made those metals for some time. We have people here with the skills, but there's been no demand for it because China now dominates this.
This is why I'm saying you can view success as bringing ore out of the mine, concentrating it and separating it into its individual materials, and the next step is refining that material. One of the biggest problems I have with the mining industry is they don't plan ahead. They don't have a marketing plan.
When I look at a business model for a mining venture, especially in something like rare earths, I look for a mine-to-market venture such as Great Western Minerals Group (GWMG) has. Great Western owns a magnet alloy producer in Great Britain called Less Common Metals Ltd. of Birkenhead, U.K. When I say magnet alloy, they make neodymium iron boron, they make samarium cobalt. Those forms, those base alloys go to people who make magnets. Some of it goes back to China. Some of it goes to the U.S. Some of it goes to Europe. But they're the only vertically integrated rare earth miner that I'm aware of outside of China. So when they start producing, they are planning to build a refinery next to the mine at the same time that they're developing the mine. The goods from that operation will go to a metal producer, which will be theirs, probably in the U.K. Then their U.K. operation will produce magnet alloy, which then goes to magnet makers. Having control of just those steps in the supply chain gives Great Western on paper enough margin, enough profit from producing the metals to show an excellent return on investment. The bankers I've talked to and institutional investors are thrilled with this model.
I am not saying that Great Western can supply the world's needs. I'm saying in my opinion, they'll be the first rare earth producer outside of China to produce heavy rare earths economically. That means that because of what they can do, they hope to be able to produce total rare earth production of 2,500 tons, I think, in three or four years and then maybe 5,000 tons a year after that. In a world that is projected to eat 200,000 tons of rare earth metals by 2015, you can see that's not a lot. But it'll be disproportionally high in the heavy rare earths and they'll be able to sell everything they're mining. They can't produce any more than that. That's what they've got. Because they're going to be the first past the post, they will get a lot of attention and they'll probably get financing. But, more important than that, that's going to make it easier for the other companies that can produce much more to get into the market.
I think the second producer will be Avalon Rare Metals (TSX:AVL), which by sheer volume in size, swamps Great Western. Keep in mind that Great Western's product is not going to be rare earths. It's going to be magnet alloy and Avalon can't compete with that. Avalon is going to produce huge quantities of rare earths ultimately. They have one of the largest if not the largest rare earth ore body on earth in Canada. But they won't be the first to produce. Once Great Western is producing and once the supply chain is reinvigorated in North America, that's going to bring all of these other guys and you're going to have in the next 10 years, in my opinion, four to six producers of rare earths in North America and no more than that. Maybe there's 85 companies, but you're going to have just four to six produce.
TGR: So you say there are four to six producers of rare earth in the next four to five years. You've mentioned Great Western, Avalon. Who else is teeing up to get into that production place?
JL: There's Molycorp. There's Lynas Corporation (LYSCF:US) . I would say there's a good shot for the company U.S. Rare Earths (which I mentioned earlier) in Idaho, Colorado, and Montana. Please note I consult for U.S. Rare Earths. I've been looking at those deposits for several years. They're very nice deposits. It's a junior. It's just now they're trying to raise money to do a pre-feasibility study. So it's very early on. U.S. Rare Earths is a player in the long term because of the accessibility and size of its deposits. But in our immediate time frame, it's Great Western, Avalon, Molycorp, Lynas. That's it. Quite frankly, Molycorp is really a restart. Molycorp's mine holds the record. It was the world's largest producer of rare earths, 20,000 tons a year in, I believe, 1984. No mine today existing or projected has ever approached that output. China's production of 124,000 tons comes from 40 mines, the biggest of which I think is 10,000 tons. Molycorp is a huge deposit. It's 9.5% ore, 30 to 50 million tons.
TGR: How much of that deposit remains after being extracted for so many years?
JL: About 99%. They have just touched the surface of that; it's so huge. Molycorp's distribution of rare earths maximizes cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, the so-called light rare earths. But in order to make modern technology devices that operate at high temperatures, we need the heavy rare earths, dysprosium, terbium, europium. The Canadian deposits are disproportionately rich in the heavy rare earths. I don't mean that they're running over with it; whereas, in Molycorp, basically, dysprosium and terbium are non-existent.
In Avalon and Great Western deposits in Canada you have as much as one or 2% of the total rare earths would be the heavy rare earths, which is very, very high. Great Western has one mine where the heavy rare earths make up 8% of the total. It must be the richest heavy rare earth mine in the world. It's a small ore body, but it can be produced. The point is we need an American producer like a Molycorp or a U.S. Rare Earths and we need a Canadian producer or we need the Australian Lynas, which also is only in the light rare earths and a Canadian producer. We need these kinds of combinations.
I have been doing due diligence consulting for Canadian institutional investors, and I can tell you that they are only waiting for the production of the rare earths to begin at either Great Western or Avalon to support them substantially. I always say to a banker, would you guys please buy Avalon and Great Western and Molycorp and make one company and they say to me, yeah, we will as soon as somebody starts producing. And they're not joking. It's logic.
TGR: Jack, is the supply situation with lithium similar?
JL: It's actually quite different. The world is in over-supply of lithium because the hype on lithium was much more than the demand. So there is no shortage of lithium. The problem is that the six largest producers of lithium today are telling us if we want more lithium, we have to pay. They will not use their capital to massively increase the output of lithium when there's no demand. That's foolish.
TGR: What about tantalum?
JL: The amount of tantalum sold in this world is tiny; there's no market in tantalum. Here's what I'm predicting is going to happen. Those end user companies for which the rare metals are critical are going to create a virtual hedge market. Today you can only hedge materials that are exchange traded with transparent prices, so you have to create a virtual hedge for the rare metals. But if Honeywell were to say to Commerce Resources Corp. (TSX.V:CCE) (PKSHEETS:CMRZF) we'll buy $250 million worth of tantalum from you for delivery from 2015 to 2020 and here's our guarantee of payment, Commerce then goes to Toronto Dominion and says, look, we've got this. Toronto Dominion says we could discount that for you right now. How about if we give you a facility of $225 million and you start building that mine?
I don't know if it's going to happen in the tantalum industry, but it's going to happen in one of these industries sometime in the next 12 months. Some big company is going to say we've decided to take a risk. So if the U.S. government says, for example, we'll cover you—in other words, the Defense Department is going to give you the order for the machines from 2014 to 2020 and it guarantees payment, then you issue your guarantee on the off- take, the bankers are willing to work with that and so is the Congress. I've been involved in these discussions already. We need to get this done. In other words, off-takes are a great way to get buy-ins kick started. It wouldn't surprise me if something like that happened with Commerce Resources, or Molycorp, or Great Western.
TGR: Jack, this has been great. Any closing comments?
JL: We need to safeguard our future. I'm not saying take the future back, beat the Chinese. We can't do that. We need to safeguard our standard of living, not our lifestyle; our standard of living. If we don't stop the outflow of our wealth to overseas, we're going to decline and we can see it already. We now have to adapt and understand the Chinese are doing it right; we're doing it wrong. We have to do long-term thinking, secure our supplies of raw materials, maintain high productivity and efficiency. Otherwise, we're just going to be stop on the world economic train.
Jack Lifton is an independent consultant, focusing on the sourcing of nonferrous strategic metals. (View videos featuring Lifton on strategic metals.) His work includes exploration and mining, and the recovery of metal values by the recycling of not only metals and their alloys but also of metal-based chemicals used as raw materials for component manufacturing. Mr. Lifton has more than 45 years of experience in the global OEM automotive, heavy equipment, electrical and electronic, mining, smelting and refining industries. His background includes the sourcing, manufacturing and sales of platinum group metal products, rare earth compounds and ceramic specialties used to make catalytic converters, oxygen sensors, batteries and fuel cells. He is knowledgeable in locating and analyzing new and recycled supplies of "minor metals," including tellurium, selenium, indium, gallium, silicon, germanium, molybdenum, tungsten, manganese, chromium and the rare earth metals.
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1) Karen Roche, of The Gold Report, conducted this interview. She personally and/or her family own none of the companies mentioned in this interview.
2) The following companies mentioned in the interview are sponsors of The Gold Report: Avalon Rare Metals Inc. (TSX:AVL, OTCQX:AVARF) and Commerce Resources Corp. (TSX.V:CCE) (PKSHEETS:CMRZF)
3) Jack Lifton: I personally and/or my family own none of the companies mentioned in this interview. I am a consultant to U.S. Rare Earths.