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Exploring the world of rare earth metals

More common metals such as gold, silver, iron, zinc, lead and copper are well-documented in financial pages such as this, and for good reason. But let’s focus for a moment or so on the lesser-known rare earth metals, those materials with many applications in our daily lives, investing in whose makers can boost the portfolios of those with an eye for value.

Molybdenum is a transition metal that does not react with oxygen or water at room temperature. The ability of molybdenum to withstand extreme temperatures without significantly expanding or softening make it useful in applications that involve intense heat, such as aircraft parts, electrical contacts, industrial motors, and filaments.

One company hard at finding and developing molybdenum is British Columbia-based United Bolero Development Corp., which trades on the TSX Venture under the symbol UNB. Besides its mining enterprises, United had also been busy in the oil patch, but scaled back those activities by the end of 2005, to focus almost exclusively on being a junior mineral exploration company.

UNB currently has options to purchase 100% interests in two properties in southwestern Montana. One of them, the Bald Butte property, has 22 patented claims comprising about 350 acres. Mining there began in June of this year. The deposit at Bald Butte shows an inferred resource of 105 million tons at a high grade of molybdenum.

Another property, elsewhere in the state, has been subject to previous explorations by other companies that have proven rich in molybdenite property.

The burgeoning market for molybdenum should be good news for those looking to snap up potentially strong stocks at low prices. UNB fortunes tailed off a bit from its 52-week peak over the 90-cent Canadian mark during May. At the beginning of August, the stock sat around 60 cents. While out of its 20-cent gully from this time last year, UNB is still very affordable.

Rare earth metals such as lithium are in higher demand, due to the exploding market for hybrid cars. Neodynium is also enjoying a surge for its place in the hybrid car market. Lithium ion is a key component in rechargeable batteries while neodymium is used to make the super magnets integral to hybrid and electric car technology.

All this is good news for such rare earth metal producers as Toronto-based Avalon Ventures Ltd. Avalon, whose shares trade on the TSX Venture under the symbol AVL, focuses on metals in increasing demand in high technology and environment-friendly applications, including lithium and neodymium, as well as calcium feldspar and beryllium, the latter of which can be used in copper alloys found in electronic products.

Avalon owns five rare metals and mineral projects in Canada, three of them in advanced development. Its Separation Rapids project in northwestern Ontario is hard at work producing lithium, while the Warren Township property, in northeastern Ontario, specializes in calcium feldspar. Its Thor Lake beryllium project, in the Northwest Territories, is home to a high-grade beryllium silicate mineral.

AVL enjoyed a leap in net revenues in fiscal year 2006 to $87,588 Canadian from $414 the year before. Total assets experienced a 50%-plus hike to $6.9 million. AVL stock prices have achieved a five-year peak of $2.21 Canadian in July, after plumbing to a 52-week low of 70 cents Canadian last fall.

Tungsten, though not widely known, is prized for a hardness ranking behind only diamonds, world-leading heat resistance density (greater than lead or uranium) and environmentally-friendly qualities; it neither breaks down nor decomposes.

Tungsten is found in sporting goods (most notably golf clubs and sports fishing weights), jet turbine engines, light bulb filaments and high-speed cutting tools.

Vancouver-based North American Tungsten Corporation Ltd., trading on the TSX Venture under the symbol NTC, is a Tier One junior resource company engaging in mining, developing and acquiring tungsten and other mineral-related properties in Canada. Its 100%-owned Cantung mine and Mactung development project in the Northwest and Yukon Territories make it one of the few tungsten producers with a strategic asset in the western world.

Production in recent months has taken off for NTC, jumping 20% from March to April of this year to a record 30,000 metric tonnes of tungsten concentrate. Unaudited sales figures came in for the first three quarters of fiscal 2007 at nearly $40 million U.S., compared to $45.1 million for all of fiscal 2006.

North American Tungsten reported $51.4 million in revenues at the end of fiscal 2006, a quantum leap from the $158,000 the previous year. NTC stock traded in early August in the $1.35 Canadian range, creating a new 52-week peak, and a far cry from 50-cent Canadian ditch in which it found itself last November.

Simply put, the bargains are out there. Companies like the ones just mentioned are avidly seeking to bring these metals to the surface and make them part of our lives.


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