By the beginning of 2015, the rhenium market had experienced five years of supply exceeding demand and, as a consequence, falling spot prices. The over-supply of rhenium reflects the increased supply of both secondary recycled rhenium and of rhenium-containing superalloy ‘engine' revert (processed end-of-life gas turbine parts). The latter in particular has significantly dampened demand for rhenium metal and contributed to falling spot prices. This situation in the spot market is in stark contrast to the period of considerable volatility between 2006 and 2009, which saw under supply and hence spot prices peak at over US$10,500/kg in September 2008.
The story of the rhenium market since the price spike of 2008 has been that of a small group of rhenium consumers from the superalloy sector (aero engine manufacturers and superalloy producers) systematically increasing their control over rhenium supplies, not for anti-competitive reasons, but in order to stabilise their input costs and reduce their exposure to a low volume, but essential, raw material.
Rhenium demand is dominated by nickel-based superalloys used to produce high performance gas turbine engines, some of the most technically accomplished and complex machines ever created. Despite considerable effort by superalloy consumers there is currently very limited substitution potential for rhenium-containing superalloys in gas turbines. Rhenium demand from this sector has grown at a CAGR of 7% since 2005 and in 2014 accounted for 78% of total rhenium demand.
Rhenium consumption in catalysts has grown slowly and steadily since the mid-1990s and in 2014 accounted for some 8.5t, 14% of the market. Minor applications of rhenium, predominantly alloyed with tungsten or molybdenum, consumed around 4.5t, 8% of the market.
Rhenium primary supply is almost entirely as a by-product of copper or molybdenum production and is highly inelastic; since 2006 primary supply has averaged 45tpy and shown very little growth. Secondary supply of rhenium, as metal or ammonium perrhenate (APR), increased considerably between 2007 to 2012, in response to high rhenium prices, but has fallen slightly since 2013. Total supply of primary and secondary rhenium metal and APR is estimated to have reached 52t in 2014 with a further 6t of rhenium contained in engine revert balancing the market. Total rhenium supply of new metal and rhenium in engine revert totalled 58t in 2014, down 4% year-on-year largely as a result of reduced deliveries by Molymet, production problems in Kazakhstan, and difficult economic conditions for many secondary producers.
Despite past volatility, the future market for rhenium is expected to be more stable, largely as a result of increasing quantities of engine revert becoming available. Demand for rhenium will experience a period of strong growth between 2015 and 2018 followed by stability through to 2020. Demand growth for the forecast period will average 6%py and reach about 85tpy. Superalloy turbine parts for aero engines and industrial gas turbines will remain by far the largest end market for rhenium at over 80% of total rhenium consumption.