“If you’re in the business of manufacturing products from aluminium, something very exciting is happening.”(1)
Scandium has been shown to improve the strength of aluminium while simultaneously reducing its weight. Bike frame, boats, tennis rackets and even MiG fighter jets can benefit from this, as well as foil, screen doors, window frames, pots and pans, nails, computer parts, sinks, and more. What’s more, Australia has the most mineable scandium in the world, which will dramatically reduce its currently ludicrous price once it is actually mined.
What Is Scandium?
If you don’t know it already, than that last paragraph may have been a bit confusing for you, but there’s nothing to be worried about as we’ll talk about scandium a lot and explain everything.
Scandium is an element that Dmitri Mendeleev first thought to exist in the 1860s. It wasn’t discovered until 1878 by a Swedish chemistry professor named Lars Fredrik Nilson. He discovered it while observing euxenite and gadolinite. It turns out, in nature, it can be found in a lot of other minerals, including but not limited to aluminum phosphate minerals, muscovite, pyroxene, bazzite and ixolite.
Scandium, at atomic number 21, is a silvery metallic element in the transition metal category. It has also been classified as a rare earth element due to its characteristics. It isn’t particularly rare, but it is rare to find in high concentrations. Processing of this element is also complex, meaning that there are very few sources of this mineral. As a result, it wasn’t until 1937 when scandium would be isolated in its pure form (2). It took another twenty three years before a full pound of pure scandium would be produced. Due to a lack of a reliable supply, scandium hasn’t been used very much, but a dependable source of scandium, like the one available in Australia, could change that and increase the global demand.
Considering the fact that scandium is an expensive metal due to its scarcity, its possibility to be used in various industries has actually made him available and highly wanted metal.
If it were offered at more reasonable price, as a direct result of demand, it could be used in many different applications, including transportation and the booming energy industry. Scandium use typically falls into three categories: strengthening of alloys, use of electrical properties and heat resistance as it relates to Solid Oxide Fuel Cells, and to capture optical properties for improvements in natural lighting in lamps, lasers and crystals, and video screens (3).
Strengthening of Alloys
Scandium is the strongest refining agent that is known as it related to aluminium. Making the alloy just 0.5 %, scandium can double or even triple the strength of many aluminium alloys without sacrificing its malleability. It can also improve the plasticity, thermal conductivity, corrosion resistance, durability and strength. Scandium is effective at retaining the weldability of aluminium while reducing overall weight. A reduction in weight improves aerodynamics and fuel efficiency.
Electrical Properties and Heat Resistance
The adoption of fuel cells has been stagnant except in NASA missions, until now. Solid Oxide Fuel Cells (SOFCs) are used to create electricity, water, heat, and carbon monoxide from natural gas and oxygen. The hard ceramic material that SOFCs are made of converts the natural gas to energy at high temperatures. The lower operating and reaction temperature of scandium extends the life of the fuel cell.
Capturing Unique Optical Properties
Sunlight is created by the combustion of scandium on the sun. In the same way it produces natural light via a lighting element. It is used in film and even stadium lighting to recreate daylight. High intensity lamps made using scandium also can provide light resembling sunlight.
Supply and Demand
Currently, scandium trading across the globe is reported at merely 10 tons per year. It is typically mined as a by product of rare earth elements in China, Russia, Kazakhstan, and the Ukraine. Ukraine offers the only direct deposit of scandium in the world. There is currently no typical market for scandium; it is not on any exchanges and there are no futures markets involving it. Typically it is traded commercially between private parties which means that there is no solid data about its trade.
The Risks of Scandium
Although scandium seems to be a real global blessing, it is not without its downfalls. Due to the bull market it is not easy to invest in. Because it is not traded on an exchange, the pricing is hard to follow. This also disallows any hedge ability. There is only a small market for scandium currently, and the supply of it relies on it being a by product of other minerals. This means that the supply of scandium is subject to intermittent increases and decreases with production stoppages. The pricing of scandium is determined by its discovery and not by any measure of gross domestic product (GDP). Scandium chloride, scandium iodide, scandium acetate and scandium fluoride are all priced differently. Scandium in its purest form is expensive and scarce, which means that widespread adoption is a huge feat. We also lack much in the way of knowledge about technology that needs to be used to produce scandium. The currently known stockpiles of scandium are rapidly depleting, and the commercialisation of scandium SOFCs is hard to educate people on.
Implications for Australia
Basically, a big of the risk of scandium is a result of it being a newer discovery, and not being widely available for mining. A mine in New South Wales is aiming to produce 78,000 tons of scandium ore per year (4), which would be of major economic assistance for Australia. Having one of the largest mines for scandium, such a rare element, could make a country very wealthy due to the rarity and price of the element. However, oversupply is a risk, as it is with any product. If supply of scandium increases too rapidly in a short period of time, there could be a price crash. The best way to handle this seems to be to use long term agreements for the mining of scandium. The mining companies must be able to show that they can produce a scalable, high quality supply of scandium before they are able to reach these long term agreements, which could be a challenge. If undertaken properly, however, there is no reason to say that Australia doesn’t stand to gain from this incredible element.
Resource used in this research paper:
- Unknown Metal is a great news for Australian Manufacturing, published piece at Sitecraft
- CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, 93rd Edition, edited by William M. Haynes
- Scandium: Why it Could Be a Huge Opportunity, interview with John Kaiser of Kaiser Research; published by Investing News
- Could Australia benefit from ‘wonder metal’ scandium?, written by Rod James for Mining Technology