Thinking outside the commodity box
It's often difficult to understand the global markets for critical minerals so The Gold Report narrowed it to three—lithium, cobalt and graphite—and brought in Simon Moores, managing director of London-based Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, and the firm's analyst, Andrew Miller, to provide insight into minerals that they say need to shed their labels as traditional commodities and embrace their future as niche, raw-material solutions for a growing list of technology manufacturers.
As Benchmark prepares to embark on its World Tour, Moores and Miller discuss supply chain visibility and the impact of disruptive technologies on these markets, as well as companies seeking to leverage lithium, cobalt and graphite into investable business models that will lure investors with a long-term outlook.
Andrew Miller is an analyst at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence and specializes in the first-hand data collection of niche minerals and metals, especially graphite, lithium, cobalt and fluorspar. Miller's primary role at Benchmark is price collection for these industries and creating and maintaining indices including Benchmark's new Graphite Price Index.
The Gold Report In a recent Benchmark Mineral Intelligence report, Mineral Supply Chain Visibility: Impact of Disruptive Technologies on Critical Raw Materials, you make the case that supply chain visibility will become increasingly important in the critical minerals space. Please briefly explain why.
Simon Moores: We've noticed that during the rare earth element bubble in 2010–2011, people didn't know what these niche minerals that go into everyday critical technologies were or where they were sourced. We've seen that knowledge grow in the last five years and downstream companies like Apple Inc. and Tesla Motors Inc. are now aware of what the raw materials are and where they come from.
Awareness in these niche minerals of growing importance, such as graphite, lithium and cobalt, is now occurring throughout the supply chain and not just in the upstream portion with the mining or processing companies. The downstream companies are paying attention and they buy the raw materials to manufacture these disruptive technologies. Supply chain visibility is rising.
Andrew Miller: Supply chains are going to become increasingly important. As these new technologies rapidly develop, both traditional industrial end users and newer high-tech buyers of these raw materials need to know more about the global supply pattern—factors that can impact their business. It's basic risk management in today's world.
They can't just rely on their traders or distributors for intelligence. End users are now aware of the need for a more global, independent picture on supply, demand and prices.
TGR: Is that happening?
SM: We haven't seen companies completely change their raw materials buying patterns yet, but some are preparing for it. In the U.S., the Conflict Minerals Act was the first time specific political restrictions have been put in place for these minerals in the West for ethical reasons. Europe will introduce similar legislation early next year. The industry will have to start thinking about buying from reputable suppliers that meet certain standards. That means that end users may no longer opt for the lowest-cost source of raw materials from places like China and Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) if producers in these regions don't fall in line with environmental or ethical rules. And that is key. It's not just about price anymore. It means people will start paying a premium for more ethically sourced raw materials.
TGR: In the same Benchmark report you suggest that disruptive technologies are the most important new market for critical minerals. What are disruptive technologies and what are two or three specific ways these technologies are changing the markets for critical minerals?
AM: Disruptive technologies are completely new markets that are creating new value chains, products such as smartphones, electric vehicles and different types of energy storage. Growth in these new markets are affecting not only their own supply chains, but also those of existing industrial markets that rely on the same raw materials. In the longer term there will be a real need for new critical mineral supply to come onto the market. In many cases that's also going to require suppliers to become more flexible.
It's not just the production out of the ground that's going to have to increase; the refining and processing capabilities have to improve and expand too. The material required by traditional critical minerals markets is quite different and more tailored from the majority of product that is needed in these new high-tech spaces.
TGR: So companies developing these critical minerals projects not only have to get these elements out of the ground, but then they also have to process them in such a way to meet the specific requirements of these new end users, which can vary greatly.
SM: That's right. The grades that the critical minerals sector has traditionally served up and that have become industry standards over the past few decades are now changing, and that's why critical minerals like lithium, cobalt and graphite aren't really commodities. They can't be mined out of the ground in large volumes and directly used; they are tailored specifically for the end user. With commodities it is more of a logistics game, with critical minerals is a processing game—this is where they are fundamentally different.
TGR: And that is often without any firm commitment from the end users. Is the traditional offtake deal dead in the critical minerals market, at least in specific cases? Offtake deals are familiar financing methods for resource companies, but it's difficult to apply that model to these minerals, which are specialist products. Critical minerals are not usually traded in the volumes that offtake contracts often serve, like, for example, iron ore. If these markets grow to reach huge volumes in the future, perhaps then they will be traded in the same way as large-scale commodities.
TGR: Lithium supplies appear tight even before Tesla Motors' Gigafactory and similar factories around the world start producing lithium-ion batteries. Please give us a brief lithium market overview.
SM: A lack of new supply coming on stream over the last three years in the face of steadily increasing demand from the battery sector, especially in Asia, has resulted in a lithium shortage. This lithium demand is not coming from a new mega factory like the Tesla Gigafactory or an expansion from LG Chem Ltd. or Panasonic Corp. —it is coming from existing plants making more batteries for mobile phones, laptops, and power tools, which are all migrating toward lithium-ion. We're seeing a natural increase in demand with a lack of new supply, which has caused carbonate "spot" prices to increase by 20% on average this year and hydroxide by even more.
Adding to supply problems are the well-documented political pressures in Chile where the government is revisiting the mining licenses of several operators in the Atacama Desert. It is an issue that Sociedad Química y Minera de Chile S.A. is dealing with at the moment, and one that has been well documented by Bloomberg. There is one new plant in the Atacama, a 20,000 tonne per annum carbonate plant owned, that could provide some lithium to the market in 2015, but probably not enough to correct the market deficit.
Orocobre Ltd. continues to ramp up lithium production at its Olaroz lithium mine in Argentina, but to ask any new plant to reach its full capacity within a 12-month period is probably too tough an ask. But there are not enough new players like Orocobre entering the lithium space; they can't yet get the funding.