Anyone in the Rare Earths space knows that Thorium frequently appears as an unwanted guest at the party. Explorers have worked on various ways to get around the issue. However there is a small group out there who we would call the “deniers”. They absolutely love Thorium. They are like Swedes liberated from the sauna in the dead of winter and would roll around in the stuff naked, if they could, to prove their commitment. While greater love hath no man to a chemical element than the Thorium crowd to their object of desire, the more measured amongst us realize that the mineral has been stuck for decades like a racehorse suffering a starting-gate malfunction.
What are we talking of here..
Thorium is a naturally occurring radioactive chemical element with the symbol Th and atomic number 90. It was discovered in 1828 by the Norwegian mineralogist Morten Thrane Esmark and identified by the Swedish chemist Jöns Jakob Berzelius, who named it after Thor, the Norse god of thunder.
Thorium is estimated to be about three to four times more abundant than uranium in the Earth's crust, and is chiefly refined from monazite sands as a by-product of extracting rare earth metals.
Thorium was once commonly used as the light source in gas mantles and as an alloying material, but these applications have declined due to concerns about its radioactivity. In the early days of the REE boom we stumbled upon the past REE (mainly Cerium) production in North Carolina (a world leader pre-1914) and further research showed that the buyers of most of the product was the German Thorium Consortium (a form of proto-cartel) who lost interest in NC and headed off to develop the Brazilian Monazite sands, which dominated REE production until the Mountain Pass era.
Thorium is also used as an alloying element in non-consumable TIG welding electrodes. It remains popular as a material in high-end optics and scientific instrumentation. Thorium and uranium are the only radioactive elements with major commercial applications that do not rely on their radioactivity.
The application that gets Thorium’s boosters most hot and bothered is its use in alternative nuclear reactors. Canada, China, Germany, India, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States have experimented with using thorium as a substitute nuclear fuel in nuclear reactors. When compared to uranium, there is a growing interest in thorium-based nuclear power due to its greater safety benefits, absence of non-fertile isotopes and its higher occurrence and availability. India's three stage nuclear power program is possibly the best-known and best-funded of such efforts. Once again we see the sideline for REEs as the beach sands exploited for Thorium in India are also the source of its REE production. We might also mention in passing that Great Western’s Steenkampskraal mine in South Africa was really a Thorium mine in its prime, with the end-use being in X-Rays.
Having said that though, the reality has not measured up to the expectations with much talk of pebble-bed reactors and micro-reactors etc. not having led to any significant adoption besides India’s efforts with a home-grown resource.
A boondoggle by any other name…
Never let it be said that the US Congress is lacking in those suffering the legislative equivalent of ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). The problem with this is that matters of great import (the US vulnerability on the strategic metals front) is oft confused by lesser worthy issues that have more strident (or generous) advocates. Thorium has gained quite a bit of traction and in the process has left prospective REE lobbyists having to try and differentiate themselves from a welter of (mis)information from Thorium’s advocates who have appropriated some of rare earths’ attractions for their own purposes by claiming that REEs and Thorium appear together, thus assistance to the Thorium industry must by implication help the REE crowd. This is bogus to say the least.
The main putsch of the Thorium clique is in the form of a piece of legislation under the moniker HR 4883. This bill advocates the promotion of heavy rare earth extraction and the storage of thorium.
The money phrase though is: “(5) Direct links exist between heavy rare-earth mineralogy and thorium”. Never let it be said that legislative agendas are subtle but this one is blatant piggy-backing. Then even more specifically it claims as its statement of policy: “It is the policy of the United States to advance domestic refining of heavy rare-earth materials and the safe storage of thorium in anticipation of the potential future industrial uses of thorium, including energy, as —
- thorium has a mineralogical association with valuable heavy rare-earth elements;
- there is a great need to develop domestic refining capacity to process domestic heavy rare-earth deposits; and
- the economy of the United States would benefit from the rapid development and control of intellectual property relating to the commercial development of thorium-utilizing technology”.
Reading between the legalese we see an attempt to stockpile Thorium, combined with an outreach to receive some sort of research funds to generate thorium applications. Pork-barrel is the word that comes most to mind. Indeed its groupies have even produced a video, but to say it’s gone viral with 1,400 hits would be over-exaggeration!
One of our deep throats in the REE space commented, “We are in an interesting position. Unlike others, we have a private-industry developed solution for our thorium that we have spent a good deal of time and money developing. We believe that HR 4883 attempts to have the Government develop a solution to a problem that does not exist while potentially benefiting a very select few and not the industry as a whole. A bigger concern is that it distracts legislators from focusing on Bills that could really benefit the industry, like HR761 and SR1600."
Like the Norse god after whom it was named Thorium is prone to loud and intermittent booms before fading again into the night. Those who would hope to accelerate its destiny as the cure for all global ills seem reliant upon the US Congress for their salvation. Good luck with that… The more worthy REE sector have been waiting outside the Congress to be tossed some scraps for years (and they have military applications). It’s anybody’s guess how long Thorium, with its “peacenik” aura, will take to get traction in corridors well-trodden by the US nuclear energy lobby, who have singularly shown zero interest in the blandishments of Thorium.
The Thorium lobby is quite clearly intent on stealing the thunder (pardon the pun) of the Rare Earth lobby by coat-tailing on a more serious issue and trying to bathe in the strategic aura that REEs still possess. Frankly if their cause was so worthy they would be able to make the case for Thorium on its own merits rather than hijacking Rare Earths’ more evident virtues to give themselves momentum.
August 12,2014 (Source: InvestorIntel, by Chris Ecclestone)