April 16, 2007
The Moly Boom
You know the old maxim? When the shoeshine boy (or the cab driver) starts giving you stock tips it's time to get out of the market?
For those who missed this year's uranium and nickel boom, there is still molybdenum. Scarce, hard to substitute, and subject to new export curbs in China, the silvery metal has freak resistance to heat, cold, and corrosion. Hedge funds view it as a leveraged play on the next looming energy crunch.
Plain "moly" to mining men, the metal gives Canary Wharf that shifting glow of blues, whites and reds as the day changes, and prevents London pollution and salt sea breezes wrecking the sheen.
It is the emerging "wonder metal" of the oil, gas, nuclear, coal, and desalination industries, needed for catalysts to remove sulphur.
No, I have no crystal ball here and I'll agree that the analysis in the piece looks viable. But when you see little known metals being puffed as great investments, time to look out I would think. The latter part of the piece sounds very like a puff for a new share issue.
Several of the people I deal with are Moly traders and almost all of them won't take material into stock at the moment. They'll do a pass through (material from producer to end user) but not pile it up in the warehouse thinking that it'll keep on going up. Russian metal that a decade ago we were paying $11 a kg for is now $80 and more.
Now to talk my own book. Anyone interested in becoming the (near) monopoly supplier of scandium to the market? The Russian stocks are near exhaustion, global demand is a multiple of global production and all we need is a mere £ 5 million to build the extraction plant. Could we just pool everyone's credit cards?
April 06, 2007
I don't normally follow nickel prices (or most of the other non-ferrous metals actually) because they're not my markets. But nickel at $50,000 a tonne? Jeez, anyone got any stainless steel scrap around?
Also, lead at over $2,000? Anyone got a pile of old car batteries? Instead of you paying to have them taken away, at this price people should be paying you for the privilege of having them.
March 08, 2007
That Lost Americum
Ezra Klein worries about some Americum that went walkabout.
September 9, 2004, a division of Halliburton dispatched from Russia to Houston, via air freight, a diagnostic tool used in oil fields which contained eighteen and a half curies of americium-241. (A curie is a measure of radioactivity.) That much americium, a Department of Energy official said, “would make a pretty nasty dirty bomb.”
A pretty nasty dirty bomb? Sorry? As in his comments, that's some 6 grams or so. Of an alpha emitter. Other than the panic amongst the ill educated, that wouldn't make a decent dirty bomb in any sense whatsoever.
Now, can we really scare the crap out of these people? Did you know that it is now law that every household must in fact contain Americium 241? No?
It's what makes fire alarms work.
March 05, 2007
Insane Business Offer of the Day
There's a gentleman out in Kazakhstan who has been smoking some very weird stuff indeed. Via email I get this:
We have sales facilities of Scandium Oxide Sc2O3, mark E.
Err, $79,000 a kilo? $79 million a tonne? Over a billion dollars for a truck load?
Jesu C on a crutch.
Pity for him there's another bloke out there offering me the same material (yes, it's exactly the same material) at something like one five hundreth the cost and I think that's still too expensive.
Must be fun to take drugs that powerful.
January 28, 2007
Interesting little piece of news from Intel:
Intel announces processors built with hafnium in substitution/addition to silicon, touting it as the biggest breakthrough in 40 years. It'll be on their new "Penryn" chips this year.
There's also another "mystery metal" they're using in the new chips. I wonder what it could be. Any ideas?
(BTW, no, it's not worth trying to corner the hafnium market on the back of this.)
June 16, 2006
Vote Early Vote Often
Clearly this is fixed, an abuse of due process as there is no way to vote for scandium, everybody’s favourite element.
Vote, therefore, for gallium.
Why gallium? We used to buy that when in Moscow. Bloke would come round to the office every few weeks with a few kilos in a 2 litre plastic Pepsi bottle or several. Good metal, nothing wrong with it at all, we’d pay cash for it.
It was only some years later that we found he’d been siphoning it off from an experiment looking for solar neutrinos. This involved two huge (30 tonnes each) tanks of gallium, one in the US, one in Russia. In order for the experiment to work, there had to be equal volumes of gallium in each tank....which, of course, after a year or so of us (and a number of other scrap metal dealers) buying those Pepsi bottles full, there wasn’t.
X decades of science thus down the drain.
Oops, sorry folks!
June 06, 2006
Scandium at Work
Junji Inanaga at Kyushu University, in Japan, and colleagues recently explored chiral rare earth metal complexes with fluorinated organophosphate ligands in the enantioselective fluorination of β-ketoesters (Tet. Asym. 2006, 17, 504). "Previously published methods have been applied to bulky esters," Inanaga says, "while ours can be applied to popularly used small esters, such as methyl ester." Using a scandium catalyst in combination with a 1-fluoropyridinium triflate fluorinating reagent, the researchers achieved yields as high as 94% with 84% enantiomeric excess (ee).
Nope, I don’t know what it means either but sounds terribly sexy don’t it?
January 19, 2006
An open letter to those selling scandium oxide.
(Sorry for the little intrusion of work blogging here folks).
Someone out there in Russia or the CIS is trying to sell off a stock of scandium oxide (or Sc2O3 if you prefer).
13 tonnes of it in fact. I’m pretty sure I know which warehouse that material is coming from, where and when it was extracted and so on. The existence of this material is not a big secret.
I have been offered it twice in the past couple of weeks. At wildly different prices. For the gentlemen who offered it to me at $300 per gramme, my apologies, but you are deluded. Your price is out by at least three orders of magnitude. (Think this through. You are asking for more than $3 billion dollars for a truckload of metal oxide. Think how much mining I could do with $3 billion.)
The other gentlemen, while their price was more reasonable, failed to take account of a very important fact. The whole wide world does not use 13 tonnes of scandium oxide in a year. Far from it, much less. When you offer for sale several year’s worth of global consumption of something it is normal for the price to be a discount to the prevailing market, not a premium. Most especially at a discount to the price we currently pay for exactly the same material, from the same warehouse, in the smaller quantities that we use it in, delivered to us when and where we want it.
So, while closer, still no cigar.
Yes, I know what is happening here. Someone is trying to sell this material and they are employing various dealers to try and place it for them. So there are now endless numbers of commodity dealers, brokers, chancers and the rest all scrambling to find out what they can about the market for scandium oxide. And most of them are going to end up talking to me at some point. For, sad as it may be to have to tell people this, we as an organization handle a large percentage of the world’s usage of Sc2O3. We’re not just one of those small number who know what it actually is, we’re one of the even smaller number who actually know what to do with it.
Yes, we’re even eager buyers of that material. All 13 tonnes of it. Yes, we’ll happily purchase several year’s global usage. At, it must be pointed out, the right price.
No, $3 million per kilo isn’t the right price. Nor is $3 million per tonne. Nor for 10 tonnes.
So why write all this for the public internets? So that those people in the network trying to sell it, as and when they peruse Google, will find it, at least I hope they will, and I’ll not have to waste time on the "but what’s your price?" "no, no, what’s your’s?" dance before finding out that someone’s lost touch with reality.
So if you’re one of those trying to sell this material, yes, please, do contact me. But can you remember, please, that the major market for this material is in bicycle frames? And price it accordingly? It just isn’t as valuable as you seem to think it is.
(Anyone who wants to link to this using the root phrase "scandium oxide", well, please do. Getting that little rant onto the first page will save me a lot of typing in the future.)
January 16, 2006
Blogging About Work.
I don’t blog about the day job very much but this little story amuses me.
15 years after the introduction of market based pricing into the Russian (or CIS) economy there are some there who still haven’t really quite grasped it. A couple of times in the past month I’ve been offered a very large shipment of a particular metal. Not huge in volume, just a truckload or so. But huge in terms of the world market, it being perhaps a decade’s worth of material for the global market.
Sort of like turning up and asking someone to buy 500 million tonnes of steel in one transaction. You’d expect there to be a healthy discount to the market price wouldn’t you? You know, there’s storage, financing costs, risks in keeping material for a decade, all those sorts of things.
No, you see, because this is indeed a decade’s worth of material, I’m being asked to pay a higher price, because it’s so strategically important. In fact, it’s so important that I’m being asked to pay at least a 1,000 (yes, that’s right, one thousand) times the usual price.
Seriously, with a straight face, people are asking me to pay $3,900,000,000 US (that’s 3.9 billion US dollars) for less than a truckload of a metal.
They obviously don’t know about the research we’ve done. Showing that a capital investment of around $10 million would provide 5 truckloads a year at around $1 million a truckload in operating costs. For a decade.
August 16, 2004
Solid Oxide Fuel Cells
FuturePundit prompted me to speak to Professor Ignatiev about the new advance in fuel cells.
I hope you'll excuse me using industry insider knowledge to provide a little perspective on this announcement. There aren't that many who work in this field and I may be the only one with a blog.
My work in this field is from the day job, the delightfully named "The Low Hanging Fruit Company Ltd", where we supply much of the world's usage of scandium. (Don't worry, it's just a metal and yes, very few people have heard of it.) /advertising off.
Over the past few years we've been in contact with a number of fuel cell people as scandium seems to solve some of the problems people were having with Solid Oxide Fuel Cells (SOFCs). Over the years the specific problem has changed. First it was making sure that the SOFC actually produced electricity at something close to the theoretical limit for the technology, some 60 - 65 %. This was achieved by using Yttria Stabilised Zirconia (YSZ) as the electrolyte. Don't worry too much about what this is but yttria is yttrium oxide, (about $30 a kg in bulk) and zirconia is zirconium oxide, a cheaper material. While there are some costs in making the compound, it isn't, as these things go, all that expensive.
However, operating temperatures of 900 - 1,000 oC mean that all of the supporting structure needs to be made out of comparatively expensive materials.
The next stage was to see if a slightly different electrolyte could be in itself more efficient, allowing the cell stack to run at a lower temperature. Scandia Stabilised Zirconia (ScSZ) allows this, operating at about 800oC. This seemingly small change means that much cheaper materials, simpler steels, can be used as the supports and surrounds. Great, except scandium oxide is much more expensive than yttria, about $500 a kg in bulk. Still the first large scale manufacturer of SOFC power plants went the scandia route : Toho Gas. There is also a problem with ScSZ, in that it can crack during the heat up/cool down cycle. Toho fixed this with an addition of ceria (cerium oxide) and Professor John Irvine in Scotland (who is the head of the EU investigation into all of this) used a ScYSZ electrolyte.
OK, so far so good, we've got a lower operating temperature, thus lower component costs, still at or near theoretical limits of efficiency, but at the expense of a much dearer electrolyte.
(If you want to see other players, have a look here. There's all sorts of interesting ideas out there, like Rolls Royce intending to run turbines off the waste heat from large plants to people who will sell you an operating plant today.)
The next stage, about 18 months ago as I recall, was to try and thin the electrolyte so as to reduce costs. The first group to leap up and down in excitement were these guys at Lawrence Livermore. Their aim was to get material costs down below $400 per kilowatt, something they could achieve with their process for 500 nanometre layers of electrolyte (that figure came from Professor Ignatiev this afternoon, sorry, I've forgotten what Steve Visco told me). Thinner electrolyte also meant less heat to disperse, further lowering temperatures and the cost of alloys needed for all the surrounds and supports.
All of this leads us to Prof Ignatiev and his team. Their electrolyte layers are down to 100 nanometre. This they do by a one stage lithography process, something that is cheaper, way cheaper, than the manufacture of silicon chips. Again, the thinning of the electrolyte layers has led to a reduction in operating temperatures, meaning that again all of the surrounding materials can be of yet cheaper manufacture. This is a bit of a guess but I would be willing to put money on the idea that you would not even need stainless steel, not even 18/8 at this point. Good old carbon steel at $400 a tonne should do it.
I think you can see that this isn't some leap in the dark, some out of the blue occurence. It's good science and engineering being done well, getting to one point, evaluating the problems then solving those, then around for another iteration.
This latest development means, from my worm's eye view, that the cost constraints on SOFCs are really and truly gone. We know how to do one stage lithography (although currently Prof I is using crystal nickel upon which to deposit, still distressingly expensive) cheaply and easily and all the materials come in well under the $400 per kWatt level.
Great, we've solved all our problems?
Not so fast. SOFCs are not, for technical reasons, well suited to use in transport. These new lower operating temperatures might make them so but I'm not at present in a position to say. Local generating plants? Oh yes. Combined Heat and Power? For a theoretical efficiency above 80%? Bring It On!! Transport? Someone else will have to determine that.
There is also the problem of fuel. SOFCs can use methane, methanol, ethanol without too many problems. They can also use hydrogen without it having to be excessively pure (this is what "internal reformer" means, I think), yet we still need to work out where we're going to get any of these things from. Given the greater efficiency of the unit over simply burning the stuff, natural gas usage would reduce emissions. Yet we've only really solved the problem when we have a non fossil fuel method of creating any of the above and hydrogen would be best.
Cheap efficient SOFCs are, from what I can see, now only an engineering/manufacturing problem. How about we run the windmills and the solar cells to electrolyse water (getting round their problem of inconsistent output) and use hydrogen as the battery, the SOFC as the means to turn the hydrogen back into power. Yes, inefficient, but the cumulative inefficiencies seem to be less than those of the fossil fuels we use right now.
Here's an interesting calculation:
Insolation is at roughly one horsepower per hour per square yard for seven equator equivalent hours per day just about anywhere with extensive human habitation. That's 5 or so KWatts per sq yard per day. What's the size of the average American houses' roof? 1,000 sq foot? 100 or so sq yards? 500 Kwatts a day? Solar cells with 30% efficiencies are out there (Berkeley, GaAs/GaN/InN). 150 KWatts. As I don't know the efficiency of a process to separate the hydrogen from the water, I'll assume 50%. OK, we've got 75 KWatts of usable power now. Our SOFC produces electricity at 60% efficiency: 45 KWatts per day of storable power. From land that's already in use for something else. Average US household daily electricity usage? 30 KWatts.
OK, OK, there's a number of leaps in those numbers but we are getting there, we really just on the cusp of being able to power a household from the ground it already occupies.Anyone who wants to correct me on the above please do.
Now all I have to do is to convert Professor Ignatiev from his use of yttria stabilised zirconia to scandia stabilised. I did plant the idea this afternoon and he says it is on his list of things to do. Just how cool would it be to be part, in however a small way, of the solution to global warming?
(If it's happening of course, and if it's not the sun itself. I do read TCS after all.)