As attendees to metal conferences know all too well, it is now rather ‘de rigeur’ to make a disclaimer. My own, prior to my talk on Rhenium at the meeting of The Minor Metals Trade Association (www.mmta.co.uk) in Washington DC on April 26th, was to dislaim being ‘an expert’ on Rhenium or being the most qualified person in the room to speak on the subject. This wasn’t mere false modesty either.
I became, I explained, what metal people might regard as an expert on rhenium, when I became the proud owner of 1mt of Rhenium rather by default than intent in 1996. Following the end of the Soviet Union, I became one of the conduits for the sale of stockpiled Kazakh rhenium (in the form of Ammonium Perrhenate) and the deliveries of 1 metric ton per month had appeared to be going quite well. Unfortunately, for reasons best known to my US customer, a serious bout of amnesia affected the order for the final tonne – and that is how I became an expert. In the light of my later brazing to the subject of rhenium I have often wondered whether I should raise some kind of monument to him in grateful thanks. Whatever the case, it will not be made out of the now rather expensive rhenium – which is ten times more valuable today, at circa USD 3000 per kg Re for basic grade APR, than it was then.
But I digress…The second disclaimer was more germane to the issue. At the conference, representatives of the top six world producers of rhenium (representing 90% of primary supply) were present, as well as, the top three aero-engine makers (representing 80% of demand). Meanwhile, the room also contained numerous specialist recyclers and merchants. And yet out of these, few were allowed to speak by their companies for fear of the repercussions of being quoted out of context by the trade press. I was speaking, therefore, because no one else felt free to do so.
There are two broad points that I want to make – one is about corporatism and the other about the liability of mis-quotation resulting from transmission of any information at a conference.
As for corporatism, all of us have seen the inexorable rise of rule-by-diktat in the world of listed companies. To enter the portal of a corporation today, will mean the sale of body and soul in a way that would no longer be acceptable if the same were expected of a nation state. Where this becomes self-defeating, is precisely in the arena of exchange of views (conferences for example) where the cut and thrust of rival company theories could be tested upon the anvil of argument. As an anecdote, of ‘corporatism gone mad’, I could quote an occasion last year when, invited to the offices of a FTSE-100 mining company in London, I was invited to listen to a 15 minute corporate message before being allowed further into the building. Seeing a bank of grown men with headphones staring into the propaganda abyss, I demurred. But, alas, the rule had the brinel hardness of titanium and, after a ten minute stand-off, the 7 or 8 people whose guest I was, were ushered sheepishly into the foyer, where the one and a half hour meeting eventually took place around a small formica-topped coffee table.
Having said the above, I do have some sympathy for those who fear that their sensible comments, aired in the atmosphere of discussion and presentation, may be perverted. Nor is it always through malice, but more often through the un-professionalism, haste, and lack of attention to detail of the transmitter. At the MMTA conference, we were entertained to an opening speech by Chris Flynn of Pratt & Whitney, extolling the virtues of the ‘Joint Strike Fighter’ (JSF) whose key mantras hang in my brain like an ear-worm even as I write – ‘eat, breathe, sleep, affordability’, an engine that was ‘making history every day’, making the $400 bln procurement programme, ‘faster, cheaper, better’. At some point, during this orgy of superlatives and Boy’s Own pictures of the streamlined fighter aircraft iteslf, a graph was produced to show that the steep rise in Rhenium prices in 2008, was exactly the kind of perverse event that needed to be eradicated.
As most minor metal merchants know, those peak prices, occurred not due to rampant speculation (there are still very few people other than Rhenium anoraks who have an interest in this small subject) but due to a confluence of demand from both catalyst and aerospace industry, which has since passed.
Pointing this out in a question, before an audience containing a room-ful of private companies who had each invested personal money from 2008 to develop a cottage industry to recover valuable Rhenium metal units previously thought impossible to recover and conserve, Chris Flynn admitted that his claim to be able to remove the offending Rhenium from the engine design was false.
But by this time it was too late. A young reporter had already filed his report from the room, mis-quoting the Rhenium price as USD/Kg, (instead of USD/lb) and writing that the PW/JSF programme was to ‘cut the amount of Rhenium used in each engine by a half’.
Much of my own talk the following day highlighted the still precarious route by which the few particles of Rhenium currently residing in God’s earth (0.04ppb) reach the grammes, kilos and few metric tonnes that make up this market, and examined the science behind the quest for fuel efficiency that drives the engine industry.
Naturally, none of the top three engine producers in the room, all of whom could either have supported or disagreed with Chris Flynn’s point, even when asked publicly, was prepared to comment.