Rhenium is a high-value, low volume metal that is un-substitutable across many applications in which it is used. Consumption is estimated to have recovered to just under 75t in 2018, in line with growth across its main first-use markets — superalloys, catalysts, thermocouples and other hi-tech uses — following the phase-out of rhenium in non-essential applications during its price spike of 2008. At that time, rhenium rose to US$12,500/kg Re compared to under US$1,500/kg in 2019.
Aerospace remains the single largest end-use application for rhenium, where it is used in the hot zones of jet engines to enable much higher operating temperatures. Rhenium can therefore be considered to be a “green” element, inasmuch that hotter burning engines have improved fuel efficiency and thus lower carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per journey compared to less efficient engines.
The major engine makers General Electric and Pratt & Whitney are now thought to be the largest buyers of rhenium globally. Pratt & Whitney’s new geared turbofan engines are set to take the largest market share for single-aisle aircraft built over the next 20–30 years. The group’s PW1,000G series requires some 12lb (5.4kg) of rhenium in the high-pressure turbine per engine. It is set to be installed on nearly half the deliveries booked for the Airbus A320neo, which has an order backlog in excess of 4,000 planes.
Historical price volatility for rhenium is a symptom of its supply dynamics, in that supply is not fully market-driven. Primary rhenium is recovered mainly as a by-product of molybdenum production, which is itself largely a by-product of copper mining (>70% in 2019). By far the major supplier is Molymet of Chile at half of the total, followed by KGHM of Poland and Freeport McMoRan of the USA. South Korea, China, Japan, Germany, Kazakhstan, Iran, Armenia and Uzbekistan also contribute to global supply. In recent years, Codelco has emerged as a significant primary supplier from the new Molyb molybdenum roaster in Mejillones, Chile. It aims to become the fourth largest rhenium producer globally.
In addition to primary supply, recycling also contributes a sizeable portion of rhenium units to the market. Rhenium recycling became particularly attractive during the high prices of 2008 but, since this time, lower prices and high inventories have made rhenium recovery less profitable. In addition, recyclers have seen price volatility for other metal credits, such as nickel and tantalum, which has contributed to a tougher operating environment.
There has been rationalisation of market supply over the last decade but high inventories still overhang the rhenium market as of 2019. As such, closures have yet to make an impact on prices.
Given the bullish outlook for air travel and corresponding requirement for superalloys in engines, Roskill is expecting these stocks to be drawn down and stimulate demand for additional supply. Several recycling facilities have closed or reduced output, and in Roskill’s view, a substantial rise in rhenium prices is likely to be needed for additional material to return to the market.