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Why does China want Utah’s molybdenum, and what exactly is it?

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Courtesy: Geology Arkansas

MILFORD, Utah (ABC4) – Copper, silver, gold…and molybdenum? Utah is known for its natural resources, but there is one particular metal that’s equally important to the Beehive State’s mining efforts you may not know much about, let alone be able to pronounce.

Let’s start there since we’re going to use the word often in this story. According to Merriam-Webster, molybdenum is pronounced mo-​lyb-de-num. It is atomic number 42 on the periodic table with the symbol Mo and can be found in Utah’s Bingham Canyon.

The geology of the Bingham mine is complex, according to the Utah Geological Survey. In simplified terms, about 30 to 40 million years ago, magma was injected into a sequence of predominantly quartzite and limestone beds that are part of the roughly 300- to 350-million-year-old Oquirrh Group, the survey shares.

The magma cooled to form a body of igneous rock known as the Bingham stock. Hot fluids generated from this magma and deposited various copper-sulfide and other metallic minerals, forming a large low-grade orebody; a connected mass of ore in a mine, suitable for mining.

Dr. Stephanie Mills, Senior Geologists at the Energy and Minerals Program at the Utah Geological Survey tells ABC4 the mineral in molybdenum is called molybdenite. It is a metal and falls under metal on the periodic table in its native state, Dr. Mills shares.

Molybdenum disulfide is similar in appearance and feel to graphite, and has a lubricating effect that is a consequence of its layered structure.

What is it used for?

She says the main industrial use of molybdenum is to strengthen metal while making it more flexible, often used in things like drill bits to help them last longer and be stronger.  

“It is basically an alloy that goes into specialty applications,” Dr. Mills shares. She says molybdenum is also “strongly tied to oil and gas industry.” The market of it can mirror that of oil and gas, Dr. Mills adds.

Where is it found in Utah?

In Utah, it is found where it is actually being produced and mined, in Bingham Canyon, known as Kennecott Copper Mine by locals, and owned by the Rio Tinto Group.

kennecott copper project_2383579941471470472

Bingham Canyon is located southwest of Salt Lake City, in the Oquirrh Mountains.

Courtesy: National Parks Service

The Western half of Utah all the way to California is part of the Great Basin. The area in Utah is known for a type of deposit called porphyry, Dr. Mills shares with ABC4. 

The geology tends to mean it is enriched in metal likes copper, gold, silver, and molybdenum. “The geology we have here in Utah makes it amenable,” Dr. Mills says of Utah’s molybdenum.

Rhenium is a chemical element with the symbol Re and atomic number 75 and is a byproduct of molybdenum. It is a “critical metal,” Dr. Mills shares. She says molybdenum is not a critical metal and that Rhenium is extracted from molybdenum.

Rhenium is called a “superalloy” and can be used in jet engines, Dr. Mills adds.

According to the Utah Geological Survey, “Rhenium is one of the rarest elements in Earth’s continental crust. Rhenium is a metal that has an extremely high melting point and a heat-stable crystalline structure.” 

“Nearly all primary rhenium production (that is, rhenium produced by mining rather than through recycling) is as a byproduct of copper mining, and about 80 percent of the rhenium obtained through mining is recovered from the flue dust produced during the roasting of molybdenite concentrates from porphyry copper deposits,” as stated by the Utah Geological Survey. 

Utah does not produce the final product of molybdenum, even though they mine it, Dr. Mills shares. “We are the source, we just do the first step. Concentrating, refinement is done out of state.” 

According to data from the Utah Geological Survey, the “U.S. mine production of molybdenum in 2020 increased by 13% to 49,000 tons compared with the previous year.”

We have it, why is China trying to get it? 

Dr. Mills says she feels China is buying up a molybdenum supply due to “infrastructure applications, including the oil and gas drilling applications.” 

“These waxing and wanings of commodity markets are relatively standard, though obviously, COVID-19 has made the past year a uniquely strange time for commodity markets.”

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