Tuesday, June 19, 2018

U.S. Chemical Industry Export Surplus Under Threat

Among thousands of applications, the U.S. chemical industry plays an important role in developing metal alloys, catalysts and agents for the environment and energy sectors.  For example, solar photovoltaic producers use hydrochloric acid, trichlorosilane gas and nitrogen trifluoride, to name just three of dozens.   Chlorine is vital to produce the polyester layers that make up light weight wind turbine blades. 
The domestic market for industrial chemicals is robust, but the export market is very important to the sector.  The U.S. ran a $33 billion surplus in industrial chemicals in 2017.  The potential for natural gas exports by the U.S. shale gas producers could help boost the U.S. industrial chemical export surplus to as much as $73 billion by 2020.     China with its growth aspirations is an important customer of the U.S. chemicals industry.  As an example, according to the American Chemistry Council (ACC), China imported 11% of plastic resins produced in the U.S. in 2017, valued at $3.2 billion.  In total the U.S. shipped about $21.5 billion worth of chemicals and plastics to China in 2017. 
Unfortunately, the chemical industry finds itself caught between an aggressive U.S. politician and his shrewd and fearless Chinese adversary.  The dust-up threatens the U.S. industrial chemicals surplus.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Lithium Australia Brings New Tech to Materials Market

Last week management of Lithium Australia (LIT:  ASX) traversed the streets of New York City, stopping by for a presentation before investors at the 121 Mining Investment Conference.  The company has developed a technology for processing lithium silicates into battery-grade materials.  Called SiLeach, the technology holds promise for the metals mining industry to extract more value from ores that would otherwise end up as waste in a tailings pile.  The process is expected to deliver savings in time and cost compared to conventional methods. 
SiLeach is a hydrometallurical process that can be carried out in standard vessels and conduits at relatively low temperatures.  The process relies on sulphuric acid and halides to break up chemical bonds along with simple mechanical processing to separate impurities.  The particular beauty of the process is that it can be used with lithium micas that are otherwise overlooked by lithium miners who focus only on spodumene ores. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Minerals Disrupted

 "The man with a new idea is a crank
- until the idea succeeds." 

Mark Twain

There is nothing new about ionic liquids.  Salts that become liquid at low temperatures were first identified by scientists in the late 1800s.  It was not until the 1970s that someone thought to try ionic liquids as electrolytes in batteries.  Now chemists are hailing these melted salts as ‘solvents of the future.’  Apparently, ionic liquids have some attractive characteristics that make them appealing in industrial situations.  They are poor conductors of electricity, have low combustibility and are thermally stable.    
Privately-held Argo Natural Resources Ltd. is on a mission to commercialize ionic liquids for processing metals and for batteries.  Based in London and doing business as Argo Applied Technologies, the company has licensed technology developed at the University of Leicester to produce and apply a type of ionic salts they call ‘Deep Eutectic Solvents’ or DES for short. 

Friday, June 08, 2018

Blindsided with Advance Warning

Holders of Ormat Technologies (ORA:  NYSE) shares may feel somewhat blindsided by the cessation of operations at the Puna geothermal power plant on the Hawaii Island.  Lava flowing from neighboring Kilauea volcano has overrun two of the geothermal wells as well as a warehouse and an electricity substation. 
Shareholders cannot claim they were not forewarned.  Ormat’s annual report for 2017 mentions the risk of volcanic eruptions seventeen times.  However, since no geothermal power company has ever experienced an interruption in operations due to a volcanic eruption, investors most likely overlooked the real dangers of locating a business on top of geological ‘hot spot.’