Who's heard of Scandium?
Scandium promises to be a future wonder metal. And Australia is likely to become its major source of supply.
Scandium is generating particular interest in the aircraft industry. The reasons for this are that, when alloyed with aluminium:
– it increases the strength and corrosion resistance of aluminium
– it allows aluminium to be welded rather than riveted
As a result, aluminium-scandium alloys have the potential to lead to lighter aircraft, greater fuel efficiency and more cost-effective aircraft production.
For the same reasons, scandium is also generating interest in the automotive industry. And it has other uses,
e.g. in fuel cells (which convert the chemical energy of the fuel used into electricity).
No-one knows at present how much scandium is produced worldwide, but it is probably less than 20 tonnes. Most comes as a by-product from mines in Russia and China.
Australia has two major deposits in New South Wales that are large, high-grade and concentrated, that is, scandium will be the main product, not a by-product.
One (near Parkes) is being developed by an Australian company and the other (near Nyngan) by a Canadian company (which has its head office in the United States).
Feasibility studies have been nearly completed (Parkes) or already completed (Nyngan). The combined capital cost of the two operations will be around A$200 million (with around half of this for the processing plants, which include high-pressure acid leaching). Combined production will be around 80 tonnes – over four times current world production.
Is this a problem? Not in the eyes of the companies involved, who argue that the market is poised to expand strongly, once low-cost production from a reliable source (such as Australia) is available.
Before the projects can go ahead, the companies need to raise finance and conclude offtake agreements with players in the aircraft industry.
Subject to these steps, construction in both cases is expected to commence in 2017, with first production by 2019.
By then (all going well), scandium will be much better known than it is now.