The Demand for Molybdenum

THE NAME OF THE GAME IS MOLYBDENUM, or just “moly,” for short — but for your sake and mine, I looked up the pronunciation: (m uh-lib-d uh-n uh m).

This metal has several interesting characteristics that make its usage integral to several forms of energy creation.

Moly has the sixth highest melting point of any element. It is highly corrosive resistant and doesn’t expand, contract, harden, or soften under extreme temperature changes. In fact, of all the commercially used metals, moly has the lowest heating expansion. For example, moly is used in making stainless steel; hence the corrosion resistance and life span of your shiny ratchet set.

Moly is added to steel and cast iron to make metal alloys and superalloys that are much greater in strength. It can be found in anything from airplanes and cars to construction beams and filaments. This metal has tons of application and, better yet, is used in almost every aspect in the world of energy.

Molybdenum’s Applications in the World of Energy

As I said, moly is used to make high-strength metal alloys. It can be found in almost every modern drill. It greatly increases the strength of the drill and can limit technical mishaps, reducing costs. In that sense, moly is needed in every aspect from drilling exploratory holes in an oil and natural gas field to drilling the production and injection wells that go into getting a geothermal power plant up and running.

You can also find moly in the coal field. If it’s a longwall mining operation, it can be found in the shearers used to extract the coal and the conveyers used to transport it. In an open-pit, truck-and-shovel operation, moly is again used in both the extraction and transportation processes.

The corrosion resistance, combined with temperature insensitivity, makes moly very important in the production of oil and natural gas pipelines. The Alaskan Pipeline consists of a half-inch metal alloy that could handle up to 25,000 PSI and temperatures of negative 70 degrees Fahrenheit. You could find up to 7% moly in that 800 miles of pipeline. Without moly, you definitely wouldn’t be getting an above 99% reliability rate, which delivers the U.S. with approximately 775,000 barrels of oil per day.

Molybdenum is also used as a hydroproccessing catalyst in petroleum production. In English, moly is used to remove sulfur and nitrogen in making light, sweet crude. This is very important as the quality of oil is diminishing more as “the low-hanging fruit” in the oil world has already been picked. Canadian oil sands and the tar oil from Venezuela are examples of oil that contain high levels of external elements that need to be purged in order to create light, sweet crude oil.

Molybdenum can be found in every modern turbine used in a power plant. All power plants, except wind and water, directly use heat to turn a turbine. In the highly abusive environment of a turbine, strength, corrosion resistance, and heat insensitivity make moly the perfect industrial metal for power plant turbines. It greatly increases the life span, reducing the cost of the power plant.

In a geothermal power plant, moly can be found in the back-pressure turbine or the condenser and pumps that reinject the fluids back into the earth. In wind energy, moly is used in the actual structure of the windmill and can be found in everything from the bearings to the generator. In hydroelectricity, again, moly can be used in the turbines and generators.

Molybdenum’s contributions to the world of nuclear energy are by far the most significant. Without molybdenum, the nuclear world would be set back at least 20 years. Newly developed high-performance stainless steel (HPSS) contains up to 7.5% moly. I cannot stress the importance enough of HPSS to the world of nuclear energy. This alloy can more than triple the life of aging fleet condenser tubes. Fleet condensers, which are rather large, are used in the heat transfer process.

Brass, copper, and nickel made up the alloys previously used in fleet condenser tubes. Although these alloys were efficient in conducting heat, their life span was only eight years. HPSS conductors were brought into play about 30 years ago. As of right now, the longest HPSS conductor has remained in service for over 26 years and is still going strong.

Older copper alloy fleet condenser tubes had corrosion issues. This affected the power plant in a couple of ways. It allowed for the buildup of corrosive materials, reducing the efficiency of the power plant. Also, the corrosion rendered weak spots in the fleet condenser tube, which could then result in holes. This was just not acceptable, because chemicals like sodium and chloride could leak and damage other vital parts of the reactor. Corrosion resistance leading to less buildup of undesirable substances increased the capacity of reactors by up to 20%.

The importance of molybdenum in nuclear energy is undeniable. But it is also used in harvesting EVERY other form of energy. Moly is the only way you can play these markets all at once.

Just because moly is vital to these markets doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a bull market in this industrial metal. But, the supply-and-demand picture proves there will be…

Supply and Demand of Molybdenum

Supply for molybdenum faces a similar conundrum to that of oil. Although there is current mine production significant enough to meet demand, refiners, or roasters, are expected to run into a shortfall. Guesses on when this shortfall is estimated to come fall somewhere between 2009-2015, depending on demand. Yes, that’s kind of a large range, but let me tell you where those numbers come from.

A roaster is similar to a refinery in that it processes the moly into a fine powder, pellets, or any other form of refined moly used in the industrial world. Total world moly roaster capacity can currently put out at an annual rate of 320 million pounds. That 320 million pounds also barely meets global demand. There isn’t much more roasting capacity left. The problem is that there is no one actively permitting for the production of any new roasters here in the United States, and roaster production looks grim on a global level as well.

The exact date is impossible to predict, but a roaster shortage is definitely on its way. The data above are based on one very important assumption. The assumption is that mines will also be able to increase their output. Western demand looks to increase by around 3% annually, while China and the CIS are looking at a demand increase of around 10% annually.

Globally, demand is expected to increase at around 4.5% per annum. Unless moly mine production picks up at a rapid pace, shortfalls of the silvery metal are expected to arrive around 2009. Note that we are talking about mine production, and not roaster capacity anymore.

This increasing demand can be attributed to two main factors. Hydroprocessing catalysts are becoming essential in today’s market for crude oil. The other contributing factor is the increase in nuclear reactors planned for production. There are 48 nuclear reactors to be built by 2013, and approximately 100 are to be built by 2020.

The International Molybdenum Association (IMOA) says that an average reactor contains about 520,000 feet of stainless steel alloy. Some larger reactors contain over 1 million feet of stainless steel alloy. With the metal alloy containing up to 8% moly — well, you can do the math.

China currently produces around 20% of global production. If global supply is able to keep up with global demand, which I sincerely doubt, we’re still looking at China beginning to hoard the one-fifth of global production that it currently produces.

Molybdenum has to supply the growing growth in all energy markets. More and more people are industrializing in the developing countries. That requires energy, and I expect that energy to arrive from numerous sources. The supply-and-demand picture presents us with a double-edged dagger: Roaster shortages are unable to keep up with growing demand or mine production is unable to keep up with growing demand. I see both of these scenarios as very likely, but only one is necessary to send the price of molybdenum to new highs. As one or both of these scenarios come to light, expect China to limit and eventually negate exports, only throwing gasoline on the already blazing fire…

Nick Jones
February 28, 2008

The Daily Reckoning