A cell phone the size of a shoe. A laptop that weighs more than a truck tire. If it weren’t for rare earth metals, a collection of seventeen chemical elements in the periodic table that are generally found in ore deposits, technology as we know it today would be whole lot different.
Rare earth metals are used in iPods, GPS navigation systems and plasma televisions. A single Toyota Prius uses 25 pounds of the stuff.
Rare earths came to the public attention when China begin to restrict their export. This past July, that country announced a 72% year over year reduction in exports. With 97% of the world’s current supply under their control, China’s hold over this sector is making people nervous. Despite the fact that China says it won’t use rare earths as a bargaining tool, concern about the global supply and demand balance of rare earths has driven their prices through the roof. One report said as much as 20,000 tonnes or one third of total exports were smuggled out of China recently.
Great Western Minerals Group (TSXV:GWG), is a Saskatchewan based company that says its goal is to be one of the first vertically integrated rare earth producers outside China. Until recently, investors might have thought this was a more than audacious statement, but the company’s activity of late has turned some skeptics into converts.
Great Western Group’s revenue has approximately doubled every year since 2006, from virtually nothing to nearly $12 million in fiscal 2009. With $14.66 million in revenue on the books for the first three quarters of fiscal 2010, the company appears on track to do it again.
Over the course of its long history, the company was founded in 1983, Great Western has built up a portfolio of rare earth properties in Canada, the US and South Africa. It’s the company’s recent pursuits in South Africa, however, that has ended a long losing streak for shareholders. Last year, when Great Western began to acquire its South African joint venture partner Rare Earth Extraction Company, or Rareco, a move that would allow them to take full control of the Steenkampskraal rare earths property, the company’s stock started to rise. Last June, shares of Great Western could be had for under $.16 cents. On February 3rd of this year, the stock closed at $1.14. Great Western now owns 92.6% of Rareco, and believes it has cleared the path for a 100% ownership.
Investors clearly think the property has potential. The Steenkampskraal mine, which is located 350 km north of Cape Town, was originally operated through a subsidiary company of Anglo American Corporation from 1952 to 1963, and during that time was actually the world’s largest producer of thorium. Rareco took control in 1989, but depressed prices for rare earth metals made ownership of the property a tough slog. With the current frenzy in rare earths and Great Western’s experience and financial backing -in addition to completing a $35 million raise, the run in the company’s stock meant it pocketed nearly $8 from warrants exercise- Great Western now believes it can now make full use of a corporate infrastructure that is already in place.
Great Western’s US subsidiary, Great Western Technologies, is a Troy Michigan based company that converts elemental rare earths into metal alloy castings and powders for U.S. magnet production and other manufacturing purposes. While showing the plant to Michigan Congressman Gary Peters in January, Great Western’s President and CEO Jim Engdahl said the company offers an “alternative to China in U.S.-based production capacity, for a wide range of applications such as electronics, hybrid cars, energy systems and defense networks.”
Peters tour of the plant came on the heels of an April 2010 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office that warned of an impending rare earths crisis, especially as it relates to homeland security and national defence.