Molybdenum is a solid, shiny, silvery metallic element that is ductile and malleable. It does not occur naturally as a free metal, but usually in an ore known as molybdenite.
This guide will explain what molybdenum is, what drives its price, and what experts have to say about this precious metal.
Why is Molybdenum Valuable?
Molybdenum has a very high melting point, which enables it to form strong, stable carbon compounds in alloys such as steel. As a result, it is an important industrial element.
Until the late 18th century, scientists believed that molybdenite was either graphite or a lead ore. In 1778, Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele analyzed the ore and proved it was neither of these substances.
In 1781, his colleague Peter Jacob Hjelm performed additional experiments on molybdenite and eventually isolated a newly discovered element, molybdenum.
Mines worldwide extract more than 225 thousand tons of molybdenum annually. In addition, a significant amount of the element is recovered each year from recycling scrap steel.
The vital role that molybdenum plays in aircraft, nuclear power and other industries ensures that the commodity will remain an important one on the world stage.
How is Molybdenum Produced?
There are two methods for producing molybdenum: primary production (mining) and secondary production (recycling). Mining provides most of the supply, although the United States Geological Survey (USGS) estimates the quantity recovered from recycling may be as much as 30% of the total supply.
Primary Production: Mining
Although many minerals contain molybdenum, only molybdenite contains enough of the element to make commercial production viable. Molybdenite can either occur alone in an ore body or alongside sulfide minerals of other metals, mainly copper. A typical viable ore body of molybdenite might contain between 0.01 and 0.25% molybdenum.
Molybdenum Mine Types
Molybdenum mines fall into three categories:
- Primary mines: recovering molybdenum is the only objective
- By-product mines: copper-bearing ore recovery is the principal objective, although molybdenum recovery provides added economic value
- Co-product mines: the commercial viability of the mine depends on extracting both copper and molybdenum.
Molybdenum Processing Steps
Depending on where the ores reside, miners use one of two techniques to extract molybdenite ores from the ground. In open cast pit technology, miners excavate close to the surface and extract the ore bodies.
If the ore bodies reside deep beneath the surface, miners employ the underground block caving technique. This method involves undercutting and collapsing large blocks of ore, which are then transported to the surface for recovery.
Processing the recovered ores occurs in five main steps:
- Ferromolybdenum Smelting
- Molybdenum Metal Production
Ball or rod mills crush and grind the ores into very fine powder. This process facilitates the next step – the separation of valuable molybdenite from worthless rock particles found in the ores.
The fine powder is mixed with water and aerated in flotation tanks. The less dense molybdenite ore floats to the top, while the dense worthless rock sinks to the bottom. If the recovered ores contain copper, flotation tanks can separate molybdenite from copper sulfide.
The remaining product is molybdenum disulfide and is between 85 and 92% pure. Further treatment can dissolve the remaining copper, lead or other contaminants and produce even purer molybdenum disulfide.
Furnaces roast the molybdenum disulfide at a temperature of between 900 and 1200 degrees Fahrenheit. The resulting cooked product is molybdenite concentrate and contains at least 57% molybdenum and less than 0.1% sulfur.
4. Ferromolybdenum Smelting
Between 30 and 40% of molybdenite concentrate is used to produce ferromolybdenum, a compound of iron and molybdenum.
Upgrading: Chemists combine about 25% of molybdenite concentrate with ammonium or sodium hydroxide to produce various chemicals.
5. Molybdenum Metal Production
The final stage involves heating molybdenum concentrate in furnaces to extract molybdenum. First, molybdenum dioxide is produced at temperatures of between 850 and 1200 degrees Fahrenheit.
Second, molybdenum dioxide is converted into the metal molybdenum. This occurs at temperatures of between 1,800 and 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Secondary Production: Recycled Scrap
Catalysts, ferrous scrap and super-alloy scrap provide the main sources of recycled molybdenum. New scrap comes from steel mill customers, while old scrap comes from molybdenum alloys that are discarded after serving their useful life.
There is no process for separate refining and processing of secondary molybdenum from its alloys. Rather, recyclers recover steel and other alloys that often contain significant amounts of molybdenum and, therefore, are useful for many applications.
China is by far the leading country for molybdenum mine production.
It accounts for more than 40% of global production, which is almost twice as much as the next largest producer, Chile.
Top 10 Molybdenum Mining Countries
|Rank||Flag||Country||World Mine Production (Thousand Metric Tons)|
Countries With the Most Molybdenum
|Rank||Flag||Country||Thousands of Metric Tons|
Uses of Molybdenum
Molybdenum is ductile, malleable and has a high melting point. It is also corrosion-resistant and strong, which makes it ideal for use in steel-alloys.
|Alloying agent||When added to steel in concentrations between 0.25 and 8%, molybdenum produces ultra-strong steel with resistance to corrosion and wear. “Moly steel” alloys can absorb pressures of up to 300,000 pounds per square inch. Many products contain alloys made with molybdenum:|
|1. Missile and aircraft parts
2. Nuclear reactor condenser tubes
4. Heating elements
6. Saw blades
|Petroleum production||Molybdenum serves as a catalyst in refining petroleum products.|
|Electronics and electrical||Filament materials in electronics and electrical products contain molybdenum.|
|Fertilizers||Plants require trace amounts of molybdenum for nutrition, and many fertilizers contain the element.|
|Lubricants||Some molybdenum compounds are used to produce high-temperature lubricants.|
What Drives the Price of Molybdenum?
The price of molybdenum is driven mostly by these five factors:
- Chinese Supply and Demand
- Global Stocks
- Demand Outlook
- Input Prices
Chinese Supply and Demand
China supplies over 40% of the annual production of molybdenum. However, China also uses more than 30% of the annual global mined supply of the commodity.
Strong Chinese GDP over the past two decades had pushed many industrial commodity prices higher. However, China’s economy has slowed in recent years. At the same time, policymakers have placed new emphasis on curbing pollution-producing industries such as mining.
Several important catalysts for molybdenum prices could occur in China. If the nation puts stricter curbs on molybdenum production, then supplies could become constrained and prices would likely rise.
Similarly, China will almost certainly play an important role on the demand side of the equation. If industrialization and urbanization expand in the country, demand for engineering steels will pick up again, and this should lift molybdenum prices.
Traders should pay careful attention to Chinese molybdenum inventories and economic growth for clues about the direction of prices.
The London Metals Exchange (LME) keeps track of global molybdenum stock levels, and traders follow these statistics closely.
Movement in these stock levels could be a harbinger of supply shortages or gluts. Drops in global stocks often accompany price increases, while increases in stocks often signal an oversupply and lower prices.
Overall economic activity, particularly in the industrial sector, affects demand for molybdenum.
The largest sector that consumes molybdenum is engineering steel. The quantity of strong steel required for big engineering projects such as bridges, railways and airports is bigger than any other applications.
The United States has not invested in major infrastructure projects in decades. Should such infrastructure investments come to fruition, the price of molybdenum could move significantly higher. Similarly, as other developed economies replace their infrastructure, molybdenum prices could rise.
The steel industry is highly susceptible to seasonal variations in demand. During the summer months, demand for steel usually declines, and, as a result, molybdenum demand is also weak.
Molybdenum is a rare element, and it doesn’t occur naturally on its own. Producing it requires large amounts of energy including coal, electricity and crude oil.
Mines and blast furnaces utilize energy to extract molybdenite from the ground and process it into molybdenum. These costs can have a big effect on primary production. Similarly, the costs of scrap metal can impact the price of secondary production.
Expert Opinions on Molybdenum
One leading consulting group that covers the metals sector sees a slow, steady recovery for molybdenum prices. It cites a pickup in the stainless steel and energy sectors as reasons for optimism about prices:
“Demand for molybdenum products has shown continued growth …driven by increased demand for stainless steel. Much of the demand growth for molybdenum products has been from increased purchases from the oil and gas industry, particularly in North America. “Roskill, Market Reports, Briefings and Consulting Services for the Metal, Mineral, Carbon and Chemical Industry