Like titanium, scandium is a metal Australia possesses in world-leading amounts, and – with a little work – it could present big industrial opportunities. Brent Balinski reports on a recently announced effort to help address the material’s supply/demand nexus.
Though the global output of scandium is miniscule, the expensive metal is highly useful in aluminium alloys and could one day change aerospace and other industries.
It’s one of the 17 rare earth elements, and though it was identified way back in 1879, it’s been something of a late-bloomer. The first half-kilogram of high-purity scandium was only produced in 1960.
Nowadays, estimates of the world’s annual scandium output vary somewhere between five and 20 tonnes. And though it’s long been known to have great usefulness in aerospace, production has remained low and the price high: roughly five to ten times that of silver.
“The wide-scale adoption of these materials has been limited until now by the absence of a stable low cost supply of scandium at scale into these markets,” John Carr, Clean TeQ Metals General Manager, told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
“Conversely, it is difficult for a primary scandium project to get off the ground without commitments from customers.”
There are efforts to change this. One of these is an alliance between Carr’s company, Deakin University and the USA’s Universal Alloys Corporation announced earlier this month.
At one end, Clean TeQ is identifying end-user benefits from the material in different alloys and making in-kind and cash contributions to the program’s work.
Their interest in scandium use catching on is easy to understand. Clean TeQ owns a potentially game-changing method of resin-in-pulp scandium recovery from ore (see video below), and its Syerston project has an expected head grade of over 500 ppm.
The other two partners in the collaboration are keen to use scandium in aluminium alloys to make plane parts lighter and stronger.
Deakin will be examining the use of tiny amounts (“below 0.1 weight per cent”) of the metal in strengthening alloys for extruded structural parts for UAC.
The use of tiny quantities of scandium in aluminium offers great improvements in strength and light weighting possibilities. For this reason, such alloys have been found in things like lacrosse sticks, bike frames, and MiG fighter jets.
(For bikes, interest in scandium has waned with an increased use of titanium and carbon fibre.)
“You can improve the mechanical properties in terms of strength of the alloy dramatically by performing age hardening treatment, and scandium forms small particles which precipitate and they’re extremely efficient at hardening the material,” Dr Thomas Dorin, a metallurgist at Deakin’s Institute for Frontier Materials, told Manufacturers' Monthly.
“Scandium is more efficient than any other elements with aluminium on the hardening side. So that’s why you can get really good strength.
“And also the problem often in age hardening aluminium alloys is you can get good strength, but when you form these particles you degrade the corrosion properties, but with scandium you don’t degrade the anti-corrosion properties.”
Deakin is keen to test the potential of scandium alloys with 3D printing, also, and has two new additive manufacturing machines on the way that will be used for the purpose.
All three organisations are hoping to see scandium use become more widespread.
The limited supply has seen prices fluctuate around USD$2,500 per kg with spikes as high as USD$6,000 per kg” said Carr. Clean Teq’s scoping study, completed May last year, was based on a long-term supply “at a stable price of $1,500/kg.”
Any potential for scandium to catch on is also of great interest for other miners operating in NSW, such as Scandium International (at Nyngan) and Platina Resources (at Owendale). The state is fortunate to have some of the world’s richest deposits.
There’s some way to go, and whether or not demand for high-performance alloys (and things like solid oxide fuel cells) will drive a boom in scandium demand remains to be seen.
Maybe the only producer of commercial alloys including scandium in the world, Airbus’s APWorks business, believes its Scalmalloy scandium-magnesium-aluminium alloy could be a “transformative material for all industries that have fast moving parts that bear heavy loads”. This includes automotive and robotics sectors.
For the time being, those interested in the obscure rare earth element can keep an eye on the various junior miners here and elsewhere moving towards production at their tenements.
Others will continue to explore the ways a little scandium, in aluminium, can go a long way.
If an ARC Linkage Grant application is successful (the result will be known in June and cover three years), the Deakin/Clean TeQ/Universal Alloys collaboration will be taken to another level.
There’s a lot of work to be done before it happens, but Clean Teq and others are working towards helping stimulate and then service a market for the late-blooming rare earth metal.
“We believe that continued consultation with the entire supply chain and collaboration agreements, like those we have with Airbus APWorks and UAC/Deakin, are critical for breaking the scandium supply/demand nexus,” said Carr.
“This painstaking groundwork will give us privileged access to major scandium markets in the future.”