Rockfire Resources (LON: ROCK) shares are up 13% this morning on the back of their announcement about germanium at Molaoi in Greece. It’s entirely possible that this is something of an over-reaction to news that is perhaps better regarded as both trivial and obvious.
Germanium is, as Rockfire says, on the list of critical materials. It is something that the world is likely to use more of in the future. It is also, as they say, worth about $1.3 million a tonne in its pure and refined form. Everything that’s said is true. What matters though is what is the importance of what is being said? The true answer here being perhaps not a lot.
To start with the zinc-bearing mineral at Molaoi is sphalerite. This normally does contain germanium, that’s just how the geology works. In the sort of range that Rockfire is saying as well – 50 to 150 parts per million Germanium. To a geologist, the statement “My sphalerite’s got germanium in it” will be met with something of a shrug.
Extraction is simple enough as long as it is planned at the design stage. Add in the right circuit to the zinc processing plant and germanium will be produced. But it is never a reason to mine the deposit. It’s very much more like a nice little tip than it is a core part of the decisions to extract and process. The presence of germanium, therefore, makes Molaoi marginally more profitable if it is economic at all but does not change the base calculation of whether to mine it or not. It’s never going to be true that the germanium content in sphalerite will swing the decision to mine for zinc or not.
It’s also not possible to think – well, it’s possible, but we shouldn’t – that germanium is in really short supply, and therefore as usage rises the price will soar. Because sphalerite and zinc mines are only one of the two commercial sources. The other is fly ash from coal-burning plants. That’s where some 50% of the world’s supply comes from and where, if demand was there, very much more could come from.
That is, there’s no requirement for increasing demand to be met by supply from zinc mining operations.
If this sounds like something of a downer on Rockfire Resources shares it’s not meant to be. It is though a statement that this finding of germanium within sphalerite at Molaoii is both trivial and obvious. Yes, there’s germanium there because it is sphalerite. And the economic effect of it being there is a small and useful increase in revenue but absolutely not enough to swing the production decision one way or the other. Finally, if the world really does start running short of germanium then that demand can be met by small plants processing the waste from coal-fired electricity plants – much cheaper than zinc processing plants and also with a higher Ge content in those wastes.
Germanium at Moloai is an interesting detail but not something that changes the economics of the project in any substantial manner.
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Tim Worstall is a freelance writer specialising in economics and the financial markets.