Investing in Lanthanum

lanthanum commodity

Lanthanum is a metallic element that gives its name to a whole grouping of metals in the periodic table. The other metals with similar properties are known as lanthanides. Like all metals of the lanthanide group, lanthanum oxidizes readily when it is exposed to air. It comes in both stable and radioactive forms. This particular silvery white metal is identified by the symbol La on a periodic table and has been given the number of 57. The pure metal is soft and malleable, but only used in research, as it oxidizes so rapidly. A 1/3-inch sized cube (1 cm2) would disappear within a year.

Lanthanum in History

The Swedish chemist Carl Gustav Mosander discovered lanthanum in 1839 while working with a sample of cerium nitrate. The name he gave the metal means "to lie hidden" in Greek.

Up until the 1870, chemists extracted lanthanum using basic separation techniques which limited extraction to salts that remained in solution after didymium was removed. Dmitri Mendeleev developed a second method for extracting lanthanum, but interest in the metal remained entirely scientific. The first pure lanthanum samples weren't extracted until 1923.

The first use of lanthanum was in combination with yttrium as part of the oxide mixture developed by Car Auer von Welsbach for use in gas lanterns. Because the mantles soaked in magnesium oxide, lanthanum oxide and yttrium oxide burned with a greenish glow, they proved unpopular. He turned to the use of the radioactive oxide of thorium because it burned with a bright white glow.

Current Sources of Lanthanum

Lanthanum is found wherever deposits of monazite and bastnäsite are found. It usually comprises 25 to 38% of the total lanthanide present in the ore. It is also found in rare earth bearing carbonatite deposits.

Presently, almost 100% of the lanthanum being mined today is being mined in China. This wasn't always so, but in 2002 an environmental group with alleged financial support from a Chinese supporter was able to raise issues regarding the environment and succeeded in shutting down the two U.S. producers who had previously supplied close to 54% of the U.S. requirement.

There are some rare earth mining operations in Russia, India and Brazil as well, but they are not producing actively. Australia is just beginning to come on line. The U.S. also has resources which have not been in action since 2002.

How Lanthanum is Being Used Today

Lanthanum is currently in use in nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries as the primary anodic material. Most hybrid cars use nickel-metal hydride batteries because lithium-ion batteries are cost prohibitive.

Lanthanum, along with other rare earth elements, is used in additional processes related to the automobile industry. Oil Refineries use lanthanum as one of the petroleum cracking catalysts in the production of gasoline. Lanthanum oxide is also a used in catalytic converters to promote combustion.

Lanthanum plays a key role when combined with boron as a hot cathode material. Its primary value is as a very bright, long-lived, thermionic electron emission source within electron microscopes. It also plays a role in spacecraft propulsion through its role as in Hall Effect thrusters which accelerate the propellant being used through ionization.

Lanthanum fluoride is added to glass to produce fiber-optic glass because it produces a glass with superior transmission qualities in the infrared range. Because lanthanum absorbs infrared rays, it is also used in camera and telescope lenses to filter out the infrared spectrum. Lanthanum oxide also makes glass more resistant to alkalis.

Lanthanum is added to steel to make it more malleable, while improving its resistance to impact. It improves the properties of steel meant for cold-weather applications. It may be added to molybdenum to reduce its hardness and increase its responsiveness to changes in temperature. Lanthanum carbonate absorbs excess phosphate from the blood. This medication has been approved for use in patients who are facing end-stage renal failure.

Pool products often contain trace amounts of lanthanum because it removes the phosphates that algae feed upon.

Lanthanum is used in the carbon lights used to light movie and television sets.

Lanthanum is used to replace the radioactive element thorium in tungsten arc welding rods.

Economic Value of Lanthanum

The value of Lanthanum is over four times higher than it was in October of 2009. From a price of about $10/kg, lanthanum is trading at nearly $45/kg in October 2010. These are wholesale prices. Refined lanthanum carbonate powered, electronic grade may be found on the internet at $165/kg. Because rare earth metals, such as lanthanum, are not exchange traded commodities, they tend to hold their value well. Growth in demand is expected as lanthanum plays an important role in the automobile industry.

How to Invest in Lanthanum

One way to invest in lanthanum is to invest in the mining companies that are developing rare earth deposits. The major producer is Bao Steel out of the Peoples' Republic of China, but this company hasn't stayed on any of the stock markets for long.

China's recent tightening of its exports has created a renewed interest in developing other sources of rare earth elements. Investing in companies that are actively developing their ability to extract rare earth elements from the ores they hold should be a good investment as long as the companies are solid.

Consider investing in the companies that are producing NiMH batteries for the automobile industry. These batteries use at least 12 kg (26 lbs.) of lanthanum per car-sized battery.

Some sources suggest investing in the automobile manufacturers themselves. Look for companies that are developing strong hybrid vehicle programs. While some advisers suggest it is safer to invest in those manufacturers who have strong ties with China, there is reason to expect that U.S. and Canadian sources will come online within the next two years. Consider whether or not the company itself is strong.

Consider investing in companies that supply lanthanum components to the manufacturing industry. While these companies can be affected negatively by a supply shortfall, they also provide the metal in the forms needed by industry.

Future demand for Lanthanum

The demand for lanthanum is expected to increase. While current hybrid automobile batteries use between 12 to 15 kg (22 to 33 lbs.) of lanthanum, as the demand to increase the fuel economy of all motor vehicles will continue to be driven by rising gasoline and diesel costs, estimates suggest that twice as much lanthanum could be required per vehicle to achieve the desired lower gasoline usage. Because lanthanum also plays a role in telecommunications through fiber optic cable, the medical industry and the production of gasoline, the demand for lanthanum should remain strong on this basis alone.

How to Locate Mining Stock to Invest In Lanthanum

The following list of mining companies and the stock exchanges they are traded on is the beginning of entering the world of rare earth element investments. This list has been narrowed down to companies that mine rare earth elements, including lanthanum, though they may also mine other metals as well. While some companies only hold mining rights in their native country, others have holdings in foreign countries that have rare earth resources.

Alkane Resources Ltd. (ASX: ALK)
Arafura Resources Ltd. (ASX: ARU)
Aurizon Mines Ltd (AMEX: AZK)
Avalon Rare Metals Inc (TSX: AVL)
Consolidated Abaddon Resources Inc (TSXV: ABN)
Eagle Plains Resources Ltd (TSX: EPL)
Gossan Resources Ltd (TSXV: GSS) (minor metals)
Great Western Minerals Group (CVE: GWG)
Molycorp Minerals LLC (MCP:NYSE)
Neo Material Technologies (TSE: NEM)

Lanthanum Quick Facts

  • » Lanthanum is present in mischmetal, an alloy used in lighter flints.
  • » Lanthanum is used in molecular biology as an electron-dense tracer.
  • » Lanthanum is so malleable and ductile it can be cut with a knife.
  • » Lanthanum is added to cast iron to make it less brittle.
  • » Blocks of mischmetal, made of lanthanum, cerium and other rare earth metals are used to create spark effects in movies. Those sparks flying out from under that car are probably a block of mischmetal dragging on the ground.

Chemical compounds

  • » Lanthanum Oxide (La2CO3) - Lanthanum oxide powder is used in the development of ferroelectric materials. It is also added to glass to increase its resistance to alkali and to increase its density, refractive properties and hardness.
  • » Lanthanum Carbonate [La2(CO3)3] - Lanthanum carbonate is a phosphate binder which is given to patients with chronic kidney disease. It binds dietary phosphate, reducing the amount of phosphate the body absorbs in the small intestine. This form of lanthanum is used as the catalyst for hydrocarbon cracking in refining oil into gasoline.
  • » Lanthanum Fluoride (LaF3) - Lanthanum fluoride is the form of lanthanum used in fiber optics, electrodes, fluorescent lamps and some radiation applications.
  • » Lanthunum Carbide (LaC2) - Lanthunum carbide plays a role in the production of some superconductors and nanotubes.

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