Scandium Markets and Uses

Scandium- Element and Product Description

Scandium is a soft, silvery metallic element, with atomic number 21, making it the lightest of the transition metals.  Scandium is not technically a rare earth element (REE) although it is widely included in that group, by both industry and governments.  Scandium is considered a Critical Metal, as defined and included on the US Department of Commerce 35 Critical Metals List, finalized in 2018.  An expansion of that list, to 50 identified Critical Metals, was published in late 2021 (as a DRAFT), with the REE’s each named individually, along with additions and deletions to the original list, and scandium again included.

Scandium is not particularly rare.  Its occurrence in crustal rocks is approximately 22 ppm, making it more abundant than lead, mercury, and all precious metals. Despite a fairly common but distributed occurrence, scandium rarely concentrates in nature, making commercial grade stand-alone resources unusual.  As a consequence, all of the scandium produced today is as a by-product of other mine or mineral processing activity, with no dedicated scandium mine in production.  SCY estimates global oxide production at about 30 tonnes per year, with greater capacity evident but currently not utilized.

Current Scandium Producers.  China is the largest known producer of scandium products for global sale, and it is suspected that unquantified internal consumption is significant relative to global export estimates.  Russia has been the second significant supplier to global markets, particularly Europe, active for over three decades.  Recent entrants to the market include Sumitomo Mining (Taganito HPAL Nickel in Philippines) and Rio Tinto (RT-IT in Quebec).   Each of these new scandium co-product projects are believed capable of expanding production, if markets demand scandium and prices support expansions.

Common Scandium Product Forms.  Scandium is generally priced as an oxide, and generally specified at +99% purity, with 99.9% grades typical for electrical applications. Pricing is confidentially negotiated between buyers and sellers today, and is very influenced by purity, available inventories, and lot size on individual sales. Pricing quotes can vary by over 100% based on these three parameters.

The scandium product form specified by customers depends on their application, and conforms to three 

  • Oxide powders are required in certain technical applications, usually at higher grades. 
  • Pure metal scandium can be a preferred over oxide, but it is much more costly and difficult to produce.  Sc metal can be difficult to source.
  • Scandium master alloy is the preferred form for aluminum alloy manufacture.  This product form (Al-Sc 2%) is a 2% scandium-containing aluminum ingot that can be directly introduced into a molten aluminum crucible to make final aluminum alloy. 

Mine production and metal processing solutions harvesting of scandium are generally going to produce either a scandium concentrate or a powder oxide form at the source of initial recovery.  Wherever finished to marketable purity, the initial product form will be oxide, which can either be sold directly, or subsequently upgraded to either scandium metal or scandium master alloy for downstream customer sale.

Scandium Markets – Current Uses and Growth Opportunities

The single largest use for scandium in commercial application today is in solid oxide fuel cells (SOFC’s), specifically as manufactured and sold by Bloom Energy, a leading SOFC manufacturer, based in the USA.   Scandium is used as a dopant in the solid electrolyte component of their system, in oxide form.  Scandium consumption levels by Bloom Energy are understood to represent a significant portion of global estimates on traded scandium oxide product.

The most significant forward-looking market opportunity for scandium is as an alloying agent for aluminum.  When applied as an addition to certain standard aluminum alloys, scandium can produce stronger, more corrosion resistant, more heat tolerant, weldable aluminum products. Not all aluminum alloys respond well to scandium, because certain metals present in their alloy mix do not allow scandium to form optimally with aluminum.  The best value proposition for scandium is found with light scandium additions and specifically in those alloys that contain little copper or silicon.

Aluminum alloys are used extensively in the global transportation industry today. This is where aluminum-scandium (AlSc) alloys hold very good promise for adoption.  Aircraft manufacturers are particularly interested in scandium alloyed aluminum materials, and the two leading commercial manufacturers fully understand the AlSc advantage, and where it can be best applied.  Adding weldability to the design equation would help further, however, welded structures are not commonly used in aircraft manufacture today.   Certain non-critical areas of commercial aircraft design do present opportunity for both AlSc welded components and AlSc weld wire use.  Un-manned aircraft (drones) represent another clear opportunity to employ welded construction to save cost and simplify manufacture. 

Other market applications for AlSc alloys, and rationales for use, are as follows:

  • High Speed Marine Craft, based on strength and improved corrosion resistance,
  • Electrical conductors and high voltage transmission systems, based on a significant strength increase in 1 series alloys, without the significant degradation of conductivity otherwise found in other stronger but more heavily alloyed series.
  • Casting parts, based on a combination of strength and heat tolerance that maintains strength at elevated operating temperatures that would more dramatically weaken other (stronger) alloys.
  • 3D Printing applications, which generally rely on the aluminum alloy series that are most receptive to scandium, are weldable, and don’t require heat treatment for strength.
  • Lithium-ion battery applications, where scandium is believed to have stabilizing effects against temperature and can add strength and durability to the cathode current connector (aluminum).  AlSc alloy should be considered for battery can structures,
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