Rio Tinto's Role in the Scandium and Aluminum Alloy Market

Scandium is a rare earth element. It is used in the manufacturing of military and civilian aircraft, lasers and fuel cells. Scandium oxide comes in the form of a white powder, the price of which varies according to purity and supply and demand. There is no organized global market for scandium at this time. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, in 2019 high purity scandium oxide sold for around $3,900 U.S. per kilogram.

Scandium oxide is also used to produce high performance aluminum-scandium master alloys for the aerospace and military industries, and for 3D printing. Its advantage is to produce alloys which make it possible to carry out highly efficient welds, that would reduce the weight of aircraft by 10 to 15 per cent and reduce the time required for their assembly.

The most important application of these alloys remains in the production of combat aircraft as evidenced by the title of a promotional item recently published on the Rio Tinto website entitled "Mineral Waste to Fighter Jets -- Pioneering a new source of a critical mineral." In that article Rio Tinto touts the fact that scandium is a by-product of tailings recycling once the ilmenite ore concentrate is processed to recover titanium oxide. According to the reasoning promoted by various levels of government, the recovery of scandium to make alloys with aluminum fits nicely into the "sustainable development" projects of a "green economy," as promoted by the federal and Quebec governments, all this to divert from the fact that "scandium can be used in industries like aerospace and defence."[1]

A Rio Tinto January 14 press release also states that scandium oxide is used to improve the performance of solid oxide fuel cells, which are used as a power source for data centres and hospitals, as well as in niche products such as lasers for military purposes, the lighting of stadiums or television studios.

Other future applications are computer and television screens, more conductive high voltage transmission cables and in the automotive industry where aluminium-scandium alloys 40 to 60 per cent lighter and with a higher hardness coefficient are expected to increasingly replace steel, titanium and other composite materials used in hybrid and electric vehicles.[2]

Today, for example, aluminum-scandium-magnesium alloy powder is used for additive manufacturing (3D printing of metals by laser fusion) to create components used in aircraft construction. This enables the creation of high strength components for the aerospace industry which include exceptional high fatigue resistance properties with a high strength coefficient close to that of titanium alloys but less dense. Scandium is also found in electronic ceramics and glass compositions. Some of the ceramics created with scandium have a very high hardness that approaches that of diamonds.


1. "Mineral Waste to Fighter Jets -Pioneering a new source of a critical mineral," Rio Tinto website.

2. "Are Aluminium-Scandium Alloys the Future?," Aluminium Insider, July 28, 2017 

This article was published in

March 22, 2021 - No. 20

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