LONDON, July 26 (Reuters) – Scandium sits in the shadows of the periodic table. Even by the esoteric standards of other critical minerals, the soft, silvery metal with the atomic number 21 is something of an enigma.
The global market is thought to be somewhere between 15 and 25 tonnes in size, but no one is very sure. Production is potentially a lot higher. It’s difficult to say, however, since much of it is in China and production is always as a by-product of other metals.
Russia used scandium-aluminium alloys in its MIG fighter jets as early as the 1980s. It, too, has scandium production.
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The United States, by contrast, has been wholly reliant on imports in recent years. It is typical of scandium’s opacity that the United States Geological Survey (USGS) says there is “no definitive data” on suppliers.
Imports are “thought to be mostly from Europe, China, Japan and Russia”, the USGS says.
It’s not hard to see why scandium is on the U.S. critical minerals list.
It turns out, though, that Rio Tinto (RIO.L) has been producing scandium all along at its titanium operations over the Canadian border. But the metal now deemed critical was going with other waste into a tailings pond.
The company has now worked out how to extract scandium oxide from the titanium processing stream, making it North America’s sole producer.
Rio Tinto has just performed the same trick for another critical mineral – tellurium – at its copper smelter in …….