What hope for minor metals?

In 2000 minor metals people were in despair. I remember it well because I gave a talk at an MMTA conference on the then topical subject of 'Can minor metals traders survive?'

It summed up how close the MMTA came, with just 50 member companies worldwide, to running out of gas.

At the time of my speech, we'd just heard that Fortis Bank had backed out of minor metals lending. Other Cassandras warned that online auctions would replace us, that consumers and producers would be able to find each other, and websites would allow new entities to compete - but with none of the experience. Meantime, demands by consumers for 'just in time delivery' or 'consignment stock' tipped the balance so far in favour of the consumer and against the trader, that the burden of finance on privately owned minor metals merchants would be unbearable.

So how come we're still here?

Founded in 1973, the MMTAs genesis was driven by the idea that the world needed a body to bring order to a complex, unregulated market. With the British love of setting rules to games only we are good at, the MMTA founding fathers tabulated rules to govern contracts, give guidance on specifications, set standards for sampling, weighing and analysis, establish an 'approved warehouse' for high-value metals storage, and develop arbitration rules to minimise disputes.

You could say that the first 30 years worked well. The MMTA found a means to impose the laws of cricket on regions that didn't play the game - namely China, Russia and the USA. If you wanted to be unkind, you could say the MMTA had served traders first. In those days it is what we were called - The Minor Metal Traders Association.

But then something strange and unexpected happened. Just as some minor metals people were considering leaving the business, the minor metals age dawned. Suddenly the application of elements so far off the scale that even the backwaters of the MMTA had no experience of them came into view. As elements such as the 77th most abundant element the periodic table, rhenium, became intrinsic to the operation of gas turbine engines, so MMTA members acquired the knowledge to track where it arose, in what form it occurred, and how it might be delivered from such places as Chile or Kazakhstan to super alloy works in UK or USA where it could be used. I remember a conference in Washington when, by my calculations, amongst the 250 persons attending a speech about rhenium, 90% of the world's producers and consumers were in the room. Similar moments occurred at other conferences with other metals - tantalum was the metal of the moment for a while, then it was rare earths, at another ruthenium, cobalt or indium. Supply chains were always complex and obscure. How, for example, was thallium to be recovered and brought to market for use in scanner lenses or repeaters in fibre optic cable? How could the right form of dual use zirconium be brought to market for liquid metal? How and where was scandium to be reduced for new light-weight weldable aluminium alloys?

Today, the proliferation goes on, as Generation Z takes the reins. In this new world order the proliferation of applications for minor metals is driven by forces not present just 20 years ago. Decarbonization is number 1, and it takes many forms. It involves solar, batteries, magnets, 5G, cracking water to producer hydrogen for molecular energy to rival electron energy. It involves making things that were once heavy lighter, energy emissions cleaner. We see a resurgence of nuclear power as another route to decarbonise, blessed by James Lovelock, author of Gaia theory. Everywhere you look there are elements, alloys, compounds, minerals, involved in the great cause of our present generation - to save the planet.

So, this backwater industry has survived and those who stuck the journey have retained generational knowledge that transcends political change. We are now called The Minor Metals Trade Association and we touch upon a plethora of industries that did not even exist in 2000, let alone in 1973. But we are still not an investment club, and we are not peddling minor metals as an investment instrument. Lose the idea of our trade as a service and we risk alienating the engineers and scientists who apply these elements. So long as we keep our sights on this role, and not on wrapping our minor metals into an instrument for sale to widows and orphans, we have a good chance of surviving as a community for a while longer.

Link to article published on Lord Copper


© 2021 Lipmann Walton & Co. Ltd

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