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Study says rare high-tech metals creating international problems

AFP · 7 Apr 2009, 08:04

Published: 07 Apr 2009 08:04 GMT+02:00

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Indium, germanium, scandium, gallium may not be household names ... yet, but they are vital components in the flat-screen displays, mobile phones and solar panels being snapped up by technology-hungry consumers.

Demand for these metals is set to explode over the next two decades, according to a recent report from Germany's IZT and Fraunhofer institutes for the economy ministry.

Gallium - vital for LED displays as well as flat-screen technology – is set to see demand rise more than six-fold from current production levels by 2030, the report says.

Meanwhile, demand for neodymium, used in magnetic technology, will be nearly four times more than currently produced, according to the researchers.

"The supply of rare metals is a topic that is not going to go away," said Rolf Kreibich, IZT's scientific director.

And the battles over these rare metals have already begun. Access to reserves of coltan, the "grey gold" used in mobile phones, is considered to be a major factor in the bloody conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Many of these rare metals are concentrated in very few countries, Kreibich said, adding that he can see conflicts resulting from the scramble to secure reliable sources.

China is set to become a major player in this domain. It already accounts for 97 percent of the world's neodymium and "has already got its hands on other metal reserves in Africa," Kreibich said.

The fight for rare, high-tech metals is likely to play a major part in Bolivia's future as it holds the world's largest reserves of lithium, critical for the development of batteries to run electric cars.

But it is not just countries competing for access to the increasingly precious metals that will run the world of the future. Industries, too, will have to battle over ever scarcer resources.

Volker Handke, one of the authors of the report, made the point: "For indium, there is competition between flat-screen technology and solar panels. Who will win?"

He added that the flat-screen industry is likely to come out on top in this particular battle as indium makes up proportionally much less of their costs.

This in turn could have a major impact on the solar panel industry, likely to expand as the market for "green technology" grows.

Moreover, production of these metals may struggle to keep up with demand, threatening a price explosion. Many are by-products of traditional mining activities. Indium, for example, comes from zinc mining.

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In addition, it is extremely difficult to recycle the metals, as they are often used in combination with other metals.

The market for these rare metals is "already in the grip of speculators," Kreibach said, even though most contracts are signed over a long time period.

He called for a "global or at least European regulation agency."

"If the G20 (group of leading industrial and developing nations) can manage to regulate something as intangible as the financial markets, it should be possible for metal," he said.

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