Bismuth is a lead substitute and pearlescent pigment widely used in the cosmetics industry (hence the picture of a fashion model).
Explorers and miners hardly ever give bismuth a second thought. And fewer still bother to indicate Bi reserves in reports.
It’s relatively abundant (11 parts per million in earth’s crust compared to gold’s 0.0013) but usually in negligible concentrations. Only one mine in Bolivia and one in China mines bismuth ore and the former shut up shop in 1996.
Pretty boring topic then, much like rare earths were a decade ago. When the rest of the world handed the industry to China on a platter.
We all know what happened then:
Fast forward to 2014 and the REE party’s over.
Perhaps the antimony, germanium, gallium, wolfram, indium, silicon, cobalt and bismuth party is just starting.
They are used in many of the same high-tech industries that need REEs and now that REEs are becoming more abundant the likes of antimony and bismuth would top the list of at risk minerals.
The Fanya Metal Exchange in Kunming, China trades all of these rare metals.
From total obscurity a couple of years ago Fanya is now the dominant player. It has stockpiled 3 times global indium production and is doing the same for bismuth.
After going nowhere for a very long time, bismuth prices are up 20% over the last year and and all the action in the industry has shifted from mines to Chinese broker-dealers.
Fanya is not quite Wall Street, but the exchange has now opened in the Shanghai Free Trade Zone.
If silver – which it also trades – can be cornered by two brothers who knows how far Fanya’s ambitions reach.
Fanya makes no bones about its ultimate goal as a state-sanctioned operator.
In its mission statement it talks of China’s “unique advantage in rare metals” and goes on to say that “from the perspective of the world economy, the protection and utilization of rare metal has been related to a nation’s strategy, safety and development.”
Granted, a shortage of bird shot, Bi subgallate, Moodstruck Minerals Blusher and Pepto-Bismol does not rank as high as control systems for jet fighters (that can’t fly without samarium according to Frank Underwood) or absorbers in nuclear reactor control rods.
We could probably get by without cheap, readily available and in-volume bismuth.
But why should we?
Image of bismuth germanate scintillator crystals by Savannah River National Laboratory.