Pushing the envelope
Ucore, IBC prepare to test innovative rare earth separation pilot plant
Last updated 3/13/2016 at Noon
Will the rare earth elements separation technology that Ucore Rare Metals Inc. has been endeavoring to develop during the past two years revolutionize the recovery of these minerals crucial to modern technology? With the completion of the SuperLig®-One rare earth separation pilot plant, the answer to that question draws nigh.
The pilot plant, designed and constructed by Utah-based IBC Advanced Technologies Inc., utilizes a highly-selective process known as molecular recognition technology to isolate the rare earth elements suspended in a solution. This process is considered to be quicker and less complicated than the methods traditionally used to coax apart the tightly interlocked REEs.
"IBC is the world leader in molecular recognition applications to the resource industry, and this pilot facility represents a disruptive technology asserting itself in an important class of materials science: the separation of metals of utmost priority to the US economy, clean energy, high technology and emerging defense systems," said Ucore President and CEO Jim McKenzie.
Ucore delved into pioneering a new technology for separating REEs as a result of seeking an efficient and environmentally suitable method of recovering the individual elements found at its heavy rare earth enriched Bokan Mountain project in Southeast Alaska.
Instead of putting a lot of effort into modernizing the solvent extraction and ion exchange methods of separating REEs, technologies developed more than 70 years ago, Ucore set out to find a whole new way of extracting the dysprosium, terbium, europium and other important REEs found at Bokan.
This search started with testing a technique known as solid-phase extraction, a nanotechnology process that showed promise to simplify the REE process. By 2014, however, the quest for a cutting edge REE separation technology had led Ucore to IBC Advanced Technologies and its proprietary molecular recognition technology.
"MRT is a revolutionary alternative to the more costly, slower and environmentally invasive solvent extraction-based methods of REE concentration and separation," McKenzie touted upon announcing the potential REE separation technology in 2014.
While the approach seemed a bit far-fetched at the time, Ucore is now on the precipice of demonstrating that molecular recognition technology works on material sourced from Bokan Mountain - a first step to introducing an avant-garde method of separating rare earths that could revolutionize the way rare earths are processed.
The MRT process is designed to bind selectively with ions based on multiple parameters such as size, chemistry, and geometry. Conventional REE separation technologies such as ion exchange, solvent extraction and precipitation generally recognize differences between ions based only on a single parameter.
According to the bench-scale testing completed by Ucore and IBC Technologies, MRT can separate tightly interlocked rare earths into individual salts in four stages, an achievement that took up to dozens of phases using forerunner technologies.
The basic idea behind the MRT process is that "SuperLig resins" engineered to grab ions based on a number of traits particular to a targeted material are loaded into columns. Then as a fluid containing this material passes through the column, the targeted material binds to the resins.
This technology has already been proven in mining. Notable applications include the recovery of platinum group metals and removing bismuth impurities from copper.
In creating a REE separation process for Ucore, IBC developed resins specifically to bind with ions associated with rare earths.
Demonstrating that the technology works at the lab level, Ucore forged ahead with funding the development of a pilot plant that is designed to separate the most valuable and critical heavy rare earth elements in four stages.
During the first stage, the tightly interlocked rare earths are separated as a group, the other materials suspended in the leachate solution.
Second, scandium, a valuable REE used in aluminum alloys for the aerospace sector, is separated from the other rare earths.
Third, the light and heavy rare earths are separated.
Finally, the most critical and valuable rare earths - terbium, europium and dysprosium - are separated into individual salts exceeding 99 percent purity.
The remaining heavy REE solution, as well as the light REE solution will be retained for future work.
IBC Technologies has separated all 16 of the individual rare earth elements found at Bokan Mountain into salts of greater than 99 percent purity using MRT technology at a laboratory level, indicating that expansion of the process to a larger scale is possible.
"We applaud the scientists and engineers at IBC Advanced Technologies for this outstanding achievement of science and design, and look forward to the successful completion of near-term test trials using domestic feedstock," said McKenzie.
In addition to gaining a rare earth separation technology that it can plug into the process flowsheet for a future mine at Bokan Mountain, Ucore intends to market the innovative technology to other companies seeking to produce REEs from fresh ore or by reprocessing tailings rich in the elements.
Upon delivery of a fully functional pilot plant, Ucore has agreed to pay IBC US$2.9 million for rights to the potentially sector-changing technology.
Under an agreement announced last March, Ucore will hold a 60 percent interest in a joint venture with IBC to market and sell the SuperLig MRT for rare earth separation and recycling applications.
"Perhaps most importantly, our licensing arrangement includes the application of SuperLig technology to the world recycling and tailings processing sector - both for the recovery of rare earths and all other metals," McKenzie said at the time.
There seems to be no shortage of investors wanting to get in on the ground floor of Ucore's efforts to market this technology to the wider rare earths sector.
"The obtainment of repeated financings during this challenging time in the resource sector is an exceptional achievement," McKenzie said in December.
At that time, Concept Capital Management was the latest investor to acquire a royalty interest in the technology.
Under the terms of the agreement, Concept Capital was to pay US$5 million for a royalty or profit share on the sale of products and services related to SuperLig technology. The foreign investment fund paid an initial US$2.5 million towards the royalty in December, with the remaining US$2.5 million due in April.
In exchange for the US$5 million of research and development capital, Concept Capital is to receive a royalty from the production of Ucore's early-stage MRT installations comprised of two components: a 5 percent gross royalty from Ucore's first MRT installation or installations, payable until the recapture of the investment; and a royalty equal to 5 percent of Ucore's net profits from the installation.
Concept Capital has opted to convert its initial US$2.5 million investment into Ucore common shares but will increase its April payment to US$5 million, providing the fund with the original royalty, plus an opportunity to benefit in a rise in the value of Ucore stock that would likely occur if the molecular recognition technology or Bokan Mountain are a success.
Concept Capital also has firmly committed to exercise an option to increase its royalty investment by US$1 million, which will provide the fund a 1 percent increase in the MRT net profits royalty.
With SuperLig One now complete, Ucore, IBC and investors in the MRT process eagerly await the results from testing the pilot plant with a rare earth elements-laden fluid sourced from the Bokan Mountain project.
Using the same processing schematic planned for Bokan Mountain, roughly 40 metric tons of material sourced from the rare earth project in Southeast Alaska was processed at Tomra Systems ASA in Germany utilizing dual energy x-ray transmission ore sorting technology. This process, which represents the first step in Ucore's process flowsheet, eliminated 52 percent of the feed as waste while retaining 96 percent of the rare earths, resulting in 19 metric tons of sorted rare earth-bearing material.
Three metric tons of the x-ray-sorted material was shipped to SGS Lakefield Research Ltd. in Ontario. Utilizing the circuit developed for the Bokan - crushing, grinding and magnetic separation, followed by a nitric acid leach - SGS produced roughly 500 gallons of pregnant leach solution that will be used to test the SuperLig One plant being tested in Utah.
During this commissioning phase, slated for later this month, the pilot plant will first be tested with water. Once the automation system demonstrates it is working properly and the newly installed plumbing is checked for leaks, the plant will set out to prove it can recover three of the most valuable rare earth elements locked in the fluids derived from Bokan Mountain.
"The maiden run of SuperLig-One appears to represent the first time that strategic metals such as dysprosium, terbium and europium have been produced on U.S. soil using American feedstock, both individually and at high purity," said McKenzie. "The use of a domestic intellectual property to produce critical domestic materials demonstrates an emerging ability to establish a standalone rare earth supply chain in the West, independent of increasingly unpredictable Chinese sources."