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What does the future hold for a modern major minor metal merchant?

The minor metals market, you could say, has come a long way from 1973, (the year the MMTA was established) when Nickel (now more than 1.6mln metric tons per year in size) was considered to be a ‘minor metal’. And even further from 1913, when Metal Bulletin was born.

But what will be the definition of a minor metal in 2073 or indeed 2113? That is the question posed to me by Alex Harrison… thanks Alex!)

Could, for example, other minor metals progress to become major metals, or perhaps just major minor metals?

Candidates elevated to something more than minor, minor metal status already include Cobalt and Molybdenum (at 80,000 mtpy and 230,000 mtpy respectively) as they struggle to grace the LME; their relatively lacklustre performance on the terminal market demonstrating that anything below 1mln tons will always have liquidity problems on a terminal market. Vanadium (130,000 mtpy) or Antimony (250,000 mtpy) would experience the same problem.

But it is not just volume that defines a minor metal but also attitude – minor metals are metals with attitude – the Mister Men of the elements. Every child should grow up with them – ‘Mister Toxic’ (thallium),  ‘Mister 77th least abundant in the earth’s crust’ (rhenium), ‘Mister Invisible’ (indium as indium tin oxide – invisible to the naked eye, but highly conductive, coating the glass used in flat panel displays), ‘Mister low melting point’ (Gallium), ‘Mister Light’ (Titanium); also known as Mr Light and Strong, ‘Mister Low Neutron Absorber’ (Zirconium), ‘Mister Neutron blocker’ (Hafnium), each one with extraordinary properties. I could go on…

While LME brokers wrestle to complete their fiendish Sudokus, waiting for Cobalt or Moly to trade on the ring, minor metal merchants spend their lonesome days following the life cycle of a rhenium or thallium atom, and the extraordinary paths by which these strange elements reach the market, tracking the parts per billion that accumulate to parts per million (grammes) and finally kilos and, occasionally, metric tons.

A glance at the size of real minor, minor metal markets is illustrative – Rhenium (50mt), Hafnium (60 mtpy), Gallium (200 mtpy), Indium (1700 mtpy), Thallium (2mtpy), Tantalum (3000 mt) etc etc – and yet the world couldn’t quite to without them.

What has changed in my brief life in metals has been the extraordinary proliferation of the application of such metals, once viewed mainly as a nuisance or a contamination to the base metals with which they are found; and previously discarded.

My only sensible prediction, therefore, for the shape of this trade 100 years hence is that we shall increase the recovery of more, from less and less, and above all from the most unlikely sources.

The further application of minor metals will lead to the exploitation and recuperation of these once discarded elements from every form of scrap, sludge, residue, mud, ash, dump, tailings-dam, flue, volcano, underwater vent, known to man; and the equal proliferation of man’s ingenious use of the same. The science to make much from unpromising raw material will evolve. Our mechanical street-sweepers will collect the particles of palladium emitted from catalytic converters meaning that we shall source pgms from swept oak leaves, the air we breathe will be filtered for particulates, the water in rivers, streams processed, the top-soils tilled for elements rather than cabbages.

‘Oh Brave New World’ that has such metal in it!