Ken Reser was one of the first to start writing about molybdenum when most investors still had trouble spelling the word, back in 2005. Around that same time, Ken realized the potential of another metal of vital importance to economies around the world that as yet had no significant production in the United States—manganese. Ken Reser has been writing and researching about manganese since 2007 and has concluded that not only is the metal a vital part of infrastructure building in growing economies, but that it should be considered a strategic metal by western goverments.
Resource Intelligence: Ken, there are a lot of reports out there that say that manganese should be considered a strategic metal, because it has no known alternative. It’s essential to the steel making industry and others—what are the uses of manganese that make it a strategic metal?
Ken Reser: Primarily, the steel industry, but it’s a metal that has many applications. For instance, manganese is the fourth most traded metal commodity behind inron, aluminum and copper. Most people have no idea how widely used and important it is, really. You will find it used in military applications, batteries, various steels—manganese can even be used as an alternative to nickel in end uses like stainless steel. So it’s very versatile.
RI: The US has only produced manganese twice before in the past. Once, I believe, around WWI when Germany was the main supplier of manganese and again during the Cold War when Russia was the main supplier of manganese. Now China controls the vast majority of this supply. How important is it that America finds a new source?
KR: Well, the US is totally dependent on outside sources at present and if you get trade disputes or, heaven forbid a war, you’re totally at the mercy of countries like China and South Africa. China controls 97% of the world’s electrolytic manganese from low-grade deposits, for example, which is used in advanced battery applications among other things. Think about it like this: in 2008, the world total production of EMM manganese was 1,190,000 tonnes. China produced 1,138,000 of that. So what if China decides that it wants to be the end producer and slaps on an even greater export tax than it already has? We need a domestic supply in North America, there’s no question about that.
RI: How much manganese does the US consume?
KR: There is about 30 billion pounds consumed worldwide and the US consumes about 6% of that.
RI: So the US consumes about 6% of thirty billion pounds and yet it produces zero. Why is there no production in the United States?
KR: Well, I think they have just become complacent because for years China was willing to sell manganese cheaply. It was too easy to import it, but now if you have a trade dispute with China for example, they could cut off the supply very quickly.
RI: South Africa is also a producer of manganese. What are some of the factors affecting supply in South Africa?
KR: South Africa as well as China are both experiencing electrical supply problems. We’ve seen brownouts and blackouts, especially in South Africa, which is the largest producer outside China. South Africa also suffers from high transportation costs, severe infrastructure problems and political uncertainty.
RI: So if there is a cut off of manganese supply to North America, what happens?
KR: The steel industry stops. You don’t produce steel without manganese.
RI: The National Research Council studied strategic metals and found that of all the metals vital to the US, it was manganese that was most crucial. If the supply was interrupted, they found that it would have the most impact on the economy.
KR: Well, I have another quote that’s interesting. Brian Gillbertson, the dealmaker who helped to make BHP Billiton the biggest mining company in the world, said, “You can’t make steel without manganese, and if you can’t make steel the world stops.”
RI: So how fast is the demand for electrolytic manganese growing?
KR: Well, manganese itself has grown roughly 8% per year, but electrolytic manganese has grown to 26% per year for quite a few years now. It’s had an extremely fast growth rate. And as I said, China produces over 97% of the worlds electrolytic manganese and something like 40% of the rest of manganese production. They import the raw ore themselves, they don’t export it, so obviously they’ve caught on to a very profitable industry themselves.
RI: They also tax the exports, don’t they?
KR: They tax the exports by 20%, which I believe will be increased before long. Also, the U.S. taxes electrolytic manganese another 14% on import.
RI: China taxes it 20% going out and the US taxes it 14% coming in, so you have just tacked on 34% to the cost of product.
KR: Yes, and you’re shipping it across the ocean as well.
RI: Are there any near term-manganese or electrolytic manganese producers in North America that should be on an investor’s radar?
KR: There is one junior active in Arizona called American Manganese. I believe they could become the lowest cost producer of electrolytic manganese in the world, according to their studies. Other than that, there are very few manganese explorers that I’m aware of.
RI: So Ken, to sum up, where should investors look to invest in manganese?
KR: Well there are large conglomerate companies in the world such as BHP, the mines in South Africa, there are smaller producers in Australia, and there is one near term potential producer in the US. It has a long life and it seems to have the criteria for the economics. If I was an investor I would be looking at a low-cost North American project because we need a domestic supply of manganese. Everything else comes by ship and it’s a big ocean to cross.
Disclosure: No Positions