Finding experienced teams could be elusive in the rush to capitalize on growing demand for heavy rare earth elements. Energy and Scarcity and Outstanding Investments Editor Byron King unearths companies that can deliver the goods along with shareholder value in this exclusive interview with The Critical Metals Report.
Byron King: The Real REE Demand Opportunity
The Critical Metals Report: In late June, Takashi Yamanouchi, president of Mazda Motor Corp., said as much as 90% of the world’s car engines, including hybrids, will still be gas powered in 20 years. What does that prediction do to the investment thesis that electric vehicles (EVs) will drive the development of rare earth element (REE) deposits?
Byron King: The man from Mazda is giving a variation on the idea that anything that cracks the automotive market will experience soaring demand. Even if you just use a little bit of something in a lot of cars, that adds up to a lot of whatever you’re talking about. If you lighten a car by replacing steel with aluminum, that means a boom for aluminum makers. When you add more electronics, it’s a boom for electronics makers. So, there’s this idea out there that building more cars with batteries will be a great thing for the REE industry.
Now, the Mazda boss is saying ‘not necessarily.’ He’s spraying cold water on those warm expectations for the future of batteries in vehicles. Yamanouchi is making the point that there’s still a lot of technological development left in the good-old internal combustion engine and in redesigning cars to get better mileage. This is something that people everywhere ought to ponder—from politicians and policymakers to the single investor—which stocks are best for a short-term trade? Beware the thesis that EVs are driving REE developments. Not so fast. The thing is, though, we use rare earth elements for a lot of things in addition to cars that don’t yet exist in great number.
TCMR: But aren’t electric vehicle makers considered one of the biggest future uses of REEs? We’ve seen REE company share prices skyrocket over the last three years, based largely on this expected demand and on the lack of a supply chain outside of China. However, if EVs don’t become ubiquitous, one of the main demand drivers for REEs won’t exist. Wouldn’t that could be a major obstacle in developing these resources?
BK: Well, some companies have benefited from the expectation that they’ll sell into the car market, for batteries that haven’t been perfected in cars that haven’t been designed, and for assembly lines that don’t yet exist. That’s my way of saying that there’s a lot of open road between here and there. EVs are almost a niche industry today and will be a slightly larger niche industry in, say, five years.
But let’s get down to the basics of understanding what to look for when investing in REEs. The first thing to understand about REEs is that there are two distinct groups. The light rare earth elements (LREEs) include lanthanum and cerium. Examples of heavy rare earth elements (HREEs) include erbium, terbium and gadolinium. The light rare earths have traditionally sold in the US$5,000–US$10,000 price range. Right now, LREEs are selling for US$150K. For projects already in the pipeline, you could see those US$150K prices kick back down to US$5K or US$10K.
TCMR: Why would that be?
BK: Because lanthanum and cerium, the LREEs, are the most abundant of REEs and tend to dominate most of the production projects on drawing boards, if not in the pipeline. There won’t be a lot of big money in the light rare earths going forward. Right now, China is squeezing the world and raking monopoly profits out of what ought to be much lower-cost items. It is acting as a very sophisticated monopolist in that arena.
Going forward, the serious money will be in HREEs, which have a lot of uses other than EVs. For example, yttrium is used in high-temperature refractory products. There’s no substitute for yttrium. Without it, you can’t make the refractory molds needed to make jet-engine turbine blades. If you can’t make jet-engine turbine blades, you don’t have jet engines or power turbines. The price points for these HREEs will reflect true scarcity and unalterable demand. People will bite the bullet and pay what they have to in order to get the yttrium.
TCMR: Rare earth juniors comprised a roughly US$2 billion industry a couple of years ago. Today, it’s a US$10B industry. Can that growth continue?
BK: I believe that’s a fair reflection of the intrinsic value of the overall industry; US$10B might even be low. I think we’re going to see major reallocations of capital from company A to company B as people realize which projects are or aren’t going to work and which companies will and will not have cash flow.
TCMR: Does this mean investors will start taking their money from company A and putting it into company B, or will there be consolidation?
BK: Both. When people have asked me for my opinion, I’ve advised management teams to get it while they can, in terms of consolidation, roll ups, takeovers and takeouts. If you’re running a small-cap rare earth play, you need to build something that reflects the reality of the REE production chain. A lot of people think that the rare earth space is a mining industry. Actually, it’s only a mining industry at the very beginning of the process—when you dig a hole, blast the ore, pull it out of the ground and crush the ore to get a concentrate. That’s mining, too. Everything else after the concentration stage is ultra-advanced chemical technology. I used to say that it’s more Dow Chemical than it is Barrick Gold Corp. (TSX:ABX; NYSE:ABX). Really, with all respect to that fine company in Midland, Michigan, REEs are even more sophisticated than Dow Chemical.
When you get into chemical engineering and the complexities of turning these concentrates into products that people can sell, buy and use, you’re dealing with some of the most-complex chemical engineering in the world. The quality assurance for the end product involves inspecting representative samples under a scanning electron microscope. They look at the atomic structure and the crystallography of an oxide molecule to make sure that the electron bonds are at the correct angles.
Look at it another way: If I mine gold out of the ground, I can sell my gold concentrate to hundreds of thousands of buyers. It goes into the world’s commerce system, and it will wind up as a gold coin, gold bar, piece of jewelry or piece of electronics.
If I mine a rare earth deposit, I’m pulling minerals out of the ground that might have as many as 17 different exotic elements in them. I have to turn each one of those 17 elements into a highly engineered end product. My end customers will buy that product only if it meets what they call
“four or five nines”—99.99%–99.999% purity–in a particular crystallographic structure. That’s why you have to be very careful about thinking the REE space is just a mining play. You can’t just go with the company that has the biggest ore body and highest ore grade. It may not be the one with the right chemistry. The biggest ore body may not be the one that makes all the money.
TCMR: Does that mean the juniors will have a difficult time finding people with the expertise needed to develop these deposits?
BK: Perfect question. The answer is, absolutely yes. Developing rare earths the right way requires management teams with every imaginable skill. First, the team needs traditional promotional skills. After it promotes the company’s stock, it needs really good science and chemical people, as well as project management and development people. Rare earth miners need relationships all the way down the industrial food chain to the end-use customer.
Back to the gold-mining analogy. Gold miners don’t care which jewelry store buys the gold and turns it into a bracelet. When mining REEs, companies need a relationship with the light bulb company that will buy a particular set of rare earths for use as phosphors in their products. They need a relationship with the electronics company that will use its REE in an advanced computer chip or piece of circuitry. It takes a whole other set of managerial skills up and down the food chain, including teams of people from the face of the mine out to the sales reps that interact with the final end users.
TCMR: Most of the juniors operating in the REE sector have market capitalizations below US$1B. The cost of developing projects is often that much or more. Other than through massive dilution, how are these companies going to get the capital to develop these projects?
BK: I believe there will be massive dilution with some companies. Furthermore, it’s going to blow back over the whole industry.
The better idea is for companies to team up. The rare earth development companies need to team up with intermediate and end-use companies. That will bring infusions of capital and human skills—the chemists, scientists, engineers, project managers and developers. Companies need to bring in the people and outside money and give them an investment stake, whether it’s equity in the company, profit sharing or offtake agreements at different stages of refining and processing.
TCMR: Will we see lots of offtake agreements or juniors doing friendly mergers?
BK: I think we’ll see highly detailed offtake agreements. As I said earlier, companies may have 17 different elements in their ore. Not every end user needs every one of those. So, companies wind up having three or four different offtake agreements with various partners, each of whom wants some or all of a particular segment of those 17 elements. They’ll have competing interests. At the same time, they’ll probably have more lanthanum and cerium than they know what to do with. They might be stockpiling bags of it, hoping somebody else will come along and takes it off their hands.
TCMR: Which companies are ahead of the game, in terms of the specialized chemical-development and finance side of the equation?
BK: The biggest name is Molycorp Inc. (NYSE:MCP), which had an IPO a year ago, priced at around US$14. It’s been as high as US$79 and is something like US$53 right now. Molycorp is an established American company with a deposit in California. I think there’s still some regulatory risk in operating in California. There are interest groups that would be more than happy to file a lawsuit in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of California to protect some endangered snail or turtle. But, Molycorp, like every company, needs human skills. It hasn’t been in the production business in many years, so it needs to develop human skills and redevelop its industrial processes.
TCMR: Didn’t Molycorp just buy a processing plant in Estonia?
BK: Yes, a plant that specializes in light rare earths. For years, it processed niobium and tantalum. The Molycorp people will tell you that they bought this plant to get something up and running wherein the company can develop and maintain a production process, along with the human skills needed. So, it’s going to be something of a training ground for Molycorp.
Another company that is a household name is Australia-based Lynas Corporation (ASX:LYC) with an ore deposit in Mount Weld, Australia. It’s building a plant in Malaysia in an area already filled with oil refineries and chemical plants. Lynas spent a couple of years and something like US$600 million building the new plant, which should now be in a preoperational, punch-list testing mode. However, at the last minute, Lynas is having problems with the Malaysian government over importing ore from Australia, and there are some rumors that Chinese interests are behind that.
TCMR: You once called human capital the “secret sauce” of Stans Energy Corp. (TSX.V:HRE) success.
BK: The human capital angle with Stans Energy is its relationship with a division of the Russian atomic power agency, Rosatom State Nuclear Energy Corp. Stans has a super-strong relationship with a group called the Russian Leading Institute for Chemical Technology, or VNIIHT, once the Cyrillic transcription is done.
VNIIHT is an absolute gem of an institution filled with hundreds of people with PhDs in metallurgy and chemical engineering. Its specialty is coming up with useful applications for exotic elements. VNIIHT was founded in 1951 as Secret Laboratory Number 10 in the old days of the USSR. Today, VNIIHT brokers its skills and works as a consultant for international customers.
An institution like VNIIHT is a very strong part of those critical human skills needed in the REE space. Stans’ relationship with VNIIHT gives it a leg up on the competition, in terms of the chemistry, engineering and developmental process. Stans and its partner VNIIHT have an inside track in this horserace.
TCMR: Stans started the month of June at US$2 and ended the month at US$1.50. In the June 28 edition of Energy and Scarcity, you called the Stans’ selloff a strong buying opportunity and a “chance to capitalize on the mistakes of others.” What would those mistakes be?
BK: One big mistake has been to get the capital expenditures wrong. There are some bad numbers floating around the blogosphere that say the capital expenditure for Stans to reactivate and restart a basic REE production line in Kyrgyzstan would be US$500M and more. They’re off by about 80%. I think US$100M is a more appropriate estimate—a shockingly low number versus what you hear for Molycorp, Lynas or other players.
The cost difference comes from the fact that Stans controls a Soviet-era mine that has a very strong life ahead of it, as well as former Soviet facilities and equipment. I’ve seen the equipment up close, and I was immensely impressed. With this trove of equipment and its relationship with VNIIHT, Stans is shaving years and hundreds of millions of dollars off its development cycle.
producer, upgrade the monazite ore into an REE concentrate and sell that concentrate to an array of potential buyers. If it works out, that would propel the company’s value into the clouds. Please tell us more about Medallion and its plant.
BK: It’s hard for me to say more than that because of confidentiality. The point is that there are operations where monazite sands are considered a waste product. But the monazite sands actually have value.
I mentioned Medallion Resources to readers because I think when something like this monazite sand-play happens, it could be a game-changer for Medallion and for the entire industry. If the sands are brought up to a concentrated level, even if not to the high-end part of the value chain, monazite sands could find buyers in Japan, Korea or China. That’s how bad the world needs the basic product.
TCMR: China controls upwards of 95% of the global supply of rare earths. But there are roughly 150 REE projects being developed throughout the rest of the world. What are some of your favorites?
BK: Two that I’ve been following in the U.S. are Ucore Rare Metals Inc. (TSX.V:UCU; OTCQX:UURAF) and Rare Element Resources Ltd. (TSX:RES; NYSE.A:REE).
Ucore has the Bokan Mountain project in the panhandle of Alaska, near Ketchikan. This is an old, permitted uranium mine with roads and a certain amount of infrastructure. It’s very mineable in a small-scale way, but it’s rich in heavy rare earth elements. Being in Alaska, it’s a U.S.-jurisdiction project and it’s very doable. I would really like to see more development along those lines. I’d like to see the Bokan Mountain mine come into play.
Rare Element Resources has an intriguing REE play going on in the Black Hills uplift area of Bear Lodge, Wyoming. Rare Element is still drilling and doing basic chemistry. It would take a lot of development to turn Bear Lodge into a mine that produces concentrate for processing into a final product. But, again, it’s a U.S.-jurisdiction play with a lot of potential.
TCMR: Do you have some tips for investors looking to play the REE sector?
BK: My strongest recommendation for the near and medium term would be Stans Energy. No disrespect to any other companies, but I think Stans has the best prospects to move quickly and solidly in the near and medium term.
TCMR: Byron, thank you for your time and insights.
Byron King is the editor of Outstanding Investments and Energy & Scarcity Investor. These publications reach more than 60,000 paid subscribers. He is also a contributor to the Daily Resource Hunter. Byron is a Harvard-trained geologist who has traveled to every U.S. state and territory and six of the seven continents. He has conducted site visits to mineral deposits in 26 countries and deepwater oil fields in five oceans. This provides him with a unique perspective on myriad investment opportunities in energy and mineral exploration. Byron has been interviewed by dozens of major print and broadcast media outlets, including Financial Times, Guardian, Washington Post, MSN Money, MarketWatch, Fox Business News and PBS NewsHour.
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