Four years after Beijing’s efforts to control the global supply of rare earths sent prices soaring, the much-hyped industry is teetering as companies seeking to break China’s grip struggle with production problems and slumping prices.
Australia’s Lynas Corp and U.S. miner Molycorp Inc , the only two suppliers outside China, are boosting output at their plants in Malaysia and California, respectively.
Both are now on the cusp of achieving steady output for the metals used in smart phones, cars and missiles.
But their ramp-ups are well behind target, beset by the challenges of running environmentally safe, complex chemical plants and after prices of the products have slumped as China’s export curbs scared high-tech manufacturers in Japan, Europe and the United States into finding ways to reduce their use.
That has squeezed Lynas’ and Molycorp’s funding and their share prices have tumbled.
With the two companies taking longer than expected to hit full stride, around 200 rival mine projects in Alaska, Canada, Sweden, Kyrgyzstan, South Africa and Western Australia, have been left on the drawing board as investors, lenders and manufacturers wait and watch.
“The pressure is on Lynas and Molycorp to demonstrate that rare earths is a viable business,” said Dudley Kingsnorth, a rare earths expert at Curtin University in Western Australia, whose forecasts are widely used in the industry.
Lynas now expects to reach its initial output rate target by December at the latest, which should shore up its shaky cash position, its new CEO said in her first interview.
Lynas mines rare earths at Mount Weld in Western Australia and then ships concentrated material in 2.5-tonne bags to Kuantan in Malaysia, where it has built the world’s biggest rare earths plant on a 100-hectare site surrounded by other chemical plants and peat swamp forest.
It had hoped to be producing rare earth oxides of lanthanum, cerium, neodymium and praseodymium, used in super magnets for wind turbines, car brakes, batteries for hybrid and electric vehicles, and energy efficient light bulbs by early 2012.
But more than two years later it has yet to hit a stage one capacity of 11,000 tonnes a year, stalled by opposition to the project on environmental grounds and technical problems. Once it reaches that rate, Lynas will be cash flow positive, CEO Amanda Lacaze, who took the role in June, said on Wednesday.
“We have an opportunity here to take something and be significant in a worldwide sense,” Lacaze said. “On the other side, there are a few hurdles or mountains to be climbed or pushed over to get to there.”
Lynas is being shored up by the Japanese, who have looked for an alternative supply ever since China held back supplies amid a territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands in 2010.
Trading house Sojitz Corp <2768.T> and state-run Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp (JOGMEC) provided $225 million in debt for the second stage of its Malaysian plant, which included Sojitz taking 8,500 tonnes of product.
Lynas managed to make the first $10 million repayment on that in March, but with cash tight, it is now trying to refinance that debt through Nomura to give it a single repayment due in 2016, instead of payments over the next two years.
PROFITABLE AT CURRENT PRICES
Lacaze does not expect prices to soar back to the levels they hit in 2011, when some rare earths were worth more than 10 times they are now, and says Lynas can sell its products for a profit even at current prices.
“Demand is not the thing which is driving our current production profile. A number of our key customers would happily take significantly more product from us than they are doing today,” she said.
Global demand for rare earths is likely to be around 120,000 to 125,000 tonnes this year, Kingsnorth forecasts, and he estimates it could reach 180,000 to 200,000 tonnes by 2020.
China consumes about two-thirds of global production, so for manufacturers outside China looking to diversify their sources of supply, that means by 2020 about 60-70,000 tonnes would have to come from outside China.
Together, Lynas and Molycorp will have about 60,000 tonnes of capacity, which leaves room for only two or three rival projects. Kingsnorth says companies that can extract heavy rare earths, like dysprosium and yttrium, will have an advantage over those focusing on light rare earths, as supply is tighter.
The industry’s uncertainties have knocked down shares across almost the whole sector to at least five-year lows in 2014, and in some cases, such as Molycorp and Arafura Resources , to record lows. [ID:nL2N0PD12A]
But Lynas, Molycorp and other aspiring producers could be helped by China’s moves to consolidate production among its biggest producers, rein in illegal output and clamp down on environmental damage from rare earths plants as that will raise production costs in China, which should push up selling prices.
Environmental activists want the government to deny Lynas a permanent licence, due in September, because they say it has failed to spell out plans for a permanent waste site. Lacaze said the plant has met every requirement imposed on it and would recycle most of its waste, which she said is mainly non-toxic.
Japan’s Sojitz, looking to supply manufacturers in Japan such as Panasonic Corp <6752.T>, Toshiba Corp <6502.T> and TDK Corp <6762.T>, is eager to see Lynas succeed, as they can no longer find substitutes for rare earths in their products.
“Now they are looking for a reliable source and sustainable supplier like Lynas to protect sustainable growth,” Sojitz spokesman Kenta Ishimori said.