Support Marketplace

Airlines seek savings in rare metals

An aircraft engine

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Bob Moon: So how do you spell relief from sky-high fuel prices? For the aviation industry, it's r-h-e-n-i-u-m: rhenium.

That's a rare, silvery-white chemical element. It's one of several metals that can be used to make jet engines more fuel efficient. As of this week, a pound of rhenium is worth more than $5,000.

We're joined by Javier Blas. He reports on commodities for the Financial Times.

Help us out, if you will, with why these metals are suddenly so hot.

Javier Blas: Rhenium, cobalt, chromium, titanium are very extremely rare metals. They're called the minor metals and [they are] very scarce, dispersed around the world, sometimes in Chile, in Kazakhstan, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Moon: Why is it that these metals are in such demand for these aircraft engines?

Blas: These minor metals such as rhenium are in such strong demand because when mixed with other metals, industrial metals like aluminium, we obtain very strong and heat-resistant superalloys. Those new superalloys allow engines to work at a higher temperature and engineers have found that running aircraft engines at a higher temperature allows them to save jet fuel. So with oil prices near $140, that's a very interesting option for the airlines.

Moon: So are they worth their weight in gold yet or are they just beginning to hit it?

Blas: Well, they are rising quite strongly. If you look at the rhenium price in 2006, just two years ago, it was about $1,000 per kilogram. Today, it's trading nearly at $12,000 per kilogram. That's about half of the cost of gold and much more expensive than silver. I was talking to a trader here in London and he said at current prices, it's going to be not so long before people are going to have rings and jewelry in rhenium instead of silver.

Moon: You don't think much about rhenium, but it's a valuable commodity right now and is likely to become more valuable for the foreseeable future.

Blas: It is. Traders think that the price could continue to increase, but I don't think that the price is going to be a problem for the airlines because they are going to be more focused on the amount of crude oil they're going to save rather than the overall impact of rhenium on airplane price. It's just a fraction of what a new Boeing or Airbus plane is going to cost, so airlines are going to continue to demand these new superalloys.

Moon: I'll wager it's still not as valuable as kryptonite though. Javier Blas reports on commodities for the Financial Times.
Thanks very much for joining us.

Blas: Thank you.

About the author

Bob Moon is Marketplace’s senior business correspondent, based in Los Angeles.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...