The History of Molybdenum
Molybdenite ("Moly") was named after the Greek word molybdos, meaning lead-like, and although it has always been around, Moly was only positively identified in 1778, by Carl Wilhelm Scheele ("Scheele"), a Swedish scientist. Sheele's studies led him to the conclusion that this mineral did not contain lead, but some other element.
Molybdenum is classified as a metal element belonging to the chromium family that is not found free in nature. The compounds that can be found were, until the late 18th century, confused with compounds of other elements, such as graphite and lead, which have similar appearances in natural form. Scheele was able to determine that Moly was separate from graphite and lead, and isolated the oxide of the metal from molybdenite. In the late 1700s an impure extract of the metal was isolated by reducing the oxide with carbon.
In the 1800's, molybdenum was used primarily in dyes and the preparation of certain chemical compounds, but little else was done with it. However, in 1893 German chemists Sternberg and Deutsch developed an economical process to produce 96% pure molybdenum metal. Although the product still contained 3% carbon, the sales price of $0.86 per pound generated interest in possible commercial uses. Tests designed to evaluate molybdenum's ability to replace tungsten as an additive in tool steel were unsuccessful, primarily because of sulphur and phosphorus impurities in the molybdenum.
Due to a variety of economic conditions and the difficulty in reliably producing pure molybdenum, very little commercial use was seen until World War I when molybdenum was widely used as an additive to toughen armor plating as demand for tungsten made the valuable refractory metal scarce, and high-strength steels were at a premium. The monster German gun Big Bertha was made of Moly. Even after that, molybdenum did not enjoy immediate success. Speculation on whether or not there would ever be a market for molybdenum gained it the moniker "the metallurgical mystery".
Since then, as more and more has been learned of Moly's unique combination of properties, the range of its uses, alloys and compounds has greatly expanded. Today, Moly is critical to the production of stainless steels, alloy steels, high-speed and tool steels, cast iron, electronics, chemicals, lubricants, super alloys, catalysts, and pigments.
Molybdenum, a transition metal, is a metallic, silvery-white element that is fairly soft and very stable chemically, but it will react with acids and has one of the highest melting points of all pure elements. In small quantities, molybdenum is effective at hardening steel. Molybdenum is also important in plant nutrition, and is necessary in animal and human nutrition. In plants, for example, the presence of molybdenum in certain enzymes allows the plant to absorb nitrogen. Soil that has no molybdenum at all cannot support plant life.
Geologically, molybdenite forms in high-temperature environments such as in igneous rocks. Some molybdenite forms when igneous bodies contact rock and metamorphose, or change, the rock.
The physical characteristic that makes molybdenum unique is that it has a very high melting point, 4,730 degrees Fahrenheit--2,000 degrees higher than the melting point of steel--1,000 degrees higher than the melting temperature of most rocks.
Interesting facts about Molybdenum:
Over two thirds of all molybdenum is alloyed with steel making it stronger and more highly resistant to heat because of its high melting temperature. The pure metal has a tendency to flake apart during machining. Molybdenum is used in oil pipelines, aircraft and missile parts, in filaments for light bulbs, metal-working dies, and furnace parts. It also finds use as a catalyst in the petroleum industry, especially for removing organic sulfurs from petroleum products. It is used to form the anode in some x-ray tubes, particularly in mammography applications and is found in some electronic applications such as the conductive layers in thin-film transistors. Molybdenum pigments range from red-yellow to a bright red orange and are used in paints, inks, plastics, and rubber materials. The iron and steel industries account for more than 75% of molybdenum consumption.
Molybdenum is also found in the mineral wulfenite (Pb(MoO4). Wulfenite forms colorful, bright orange, red, and yellow crystals that can be blocky or so thin that they are transparent.
Although current molybdenum production meets demand, refiners, or roasters are expected to run into a shortfall between 2009 and 2015, depending on demand. A roaster processes the molybdenum into a fine powder, pellets, or other forms. Total world molybdenum roaster capacity is currently 320 million pounds per year, barely enough to meet demand. There is not much excess roasting capacity, and no one is actively permitting for the production of any new roasters in the United States. Global roaster capacity also looks limited, and a future roaster shortage is predicted.
World demand is expected to rise from 200,000 tonnes per annum to 500,000 tonnes per annum by 2030. Based on increasing applications Moly demand growth has been predicted at between 4 and 6% per annum over next ten years. Western demand is projected to increase by around 3 percent annually, while China demand is projected to increase by around 10 percent annually, increasing overall global demand by around 4.5 percent annually.
The use of molybdenum has increased steadily, and it is in demand today both in pure form, and as a steel additive. Most molybdenum is mined in the United States, Chile, and China. Among the key assumptions behind the expected growth rate is the need for high strength low weight products
- A typical car produced today contains just under one pound of Moly.
- Moly use as an alloying element in the production of special steels is also anticipated to grow as construction moves forward particularly in countries such as India and China.
Increasing demand can be attributed to two main factors. Hydro processing catalysts are becoming essential for crude oil and the increase in nuclear reactor construction. There are 48 nuclear reactors to be built by 2013, and approximately 100 are to be built by 2020. The International Molybdenum Association (IMOA) says that an average reactor contains about 520,000 feet (160,000 m) of stainless steel alloy. Some larger reactors contain over 1 million feet of stainless steel alloy.
To match 4% demand growth requires a new 15 million tonne per annum mine per year at 0.06% recoverable Moly.
Molybdenum prices have increased from a low of about $2/pound in 2000, to about $30/pound in 2008.