Ucore expanding Alaska rare earth separation solution into global business
Last updated 1/30/2018 at 8:36am
In its quest to discover a more economic and environmentally sound way to separate the 16 rare earth elements found at its Bokan Mountain project in Southeast Alaska, Ucore Rare Metals has helped pioneer a new technology that could transform the way not only rare earths but an entire suite of strategic metals are processed in the United States and around the globe.
Over the past two years, this mineral explorer turned innovator has taken the unproven concept of using molecular recognition technology to separate the notoriously tightly interlocked rare earth elements, or REEs, from the bench of a lab to a successful pilot run. Now the company plans to cash in on this revolutionary technology by building what it calls a strategic metals complex, or SMC, an industrial-scale version of a recently verified REE separation pilot plant dubbed SuperLig-One.
"This strategic metals complex represents not just a transition by Ucore towards near-term production and revenue," said Jim McKenzie, president and CEO of Ucore. "It represents a reaction to a very real domestic need for high-purity energy metals. In turn, the SMC represents a significant progression for Ucore, capitalizing on the innovative design of SuperLig-One, and leveraging this platform in to full scale production."
Ucore delved into pioneering a new technology for separating REEs while seeking an efficient and environmentally suitable method of recovering the individual elements found at its heavy rare earth enriched Bokan Mountain project on Prince of Wales Island near Ketchikan.
Instead of putting a lot of effort into modernizing inefficient and environmentally invasive legacy REE separation technologies such as solvent extraction or ion exchange, Ucore set out to find a whole new way of extracting the dysprosium, terbium, europium and other important REEs found at Bokan.
By 2014, this quest for a cutting edge REE separation technology had led Ucore to IBC Advanced Technologies and its proprietary molecular recognition technology.
The basic idea behind the MRT process is that "SuperLig resins" are engineered to grab ions based on a number of traits such as size, chemistry and geometry. These resins are loaded into a column and latch onto the targeted material suspended in a solution that is pumped through the column. Simply rinsing the resin with a mildly acidic solution releases a nearly pure version of the material the resin is engineered to bind to.
This technology, which has been around for about 30 years, has already been proven in mining. Notable applications include platinum group metals refining and removing bismuth impurities from copper.
Before Ucore and IBC, no one had ever tried to utilize MRT to separate the hard to break apart REEs.
In less than two years, these two companies have not only demonstrated that MRT can separate the REEs into nearly pure individual elements, but this innovative technology could be highly efficient and effective when scaled up to the commercial level.
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 and IBC forged ahead with the development of SuperLig-One, a pilot plant that has successfully separated the most valuable and critical heavy rare earth elements contained in a solution derived from Bokan Mountain.
After separating the entire REE suite as a group, scandium, a valuable REE used in aluminum alloys for the aerospace sector, was isolated from the other rare earths.
Once scandium was skimmed off, the highly coveted and more expensive heavy rare earths were separated from the more common and less valuable light REEs.
By August, the SuperLig-One plant had achieved the ultimate goal for REE separation, the isolation of dysprosium.
"The recovery of near-quantitative purities of dysprosium at industrial scale, solely using American feedstock, and without the use of chemically-intensive SX (solvent extraction) technologies, are significant firsts for the industry," said McKenzie.
According to a 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Energy, dysprosium is deemed the most critical of all elements in terms of its importance to clean energy and supply risk.
"This metal is deployed extensively in United States military, high technology and clean energy sectors, with 100 percent of the product currently originating from China," the Ucore CEO said.
In fact, four rare earths – dysprosium, europium, terbium and yttrium – topped the list of DOE's five most critical and supply risky elements.
The remaining heavy rare earths, minus the dysprosium and scandium, and the light REE solution will be retained for future work.
Through each step of the process, the SuperLig-One pilot plant achieved 99 percent purity for the groups, subgroups and individual rare earths; and nearly 100 percent of the REE were retained and available for the next stage. This means that virtually none of the rare earths were lost and the recovered rare earths are exceptionally pure.
These results were confirmed by an independent third-party laboratory, paving the way for the next stage of evolution for SuperLig.
"This is an exciting time for Ucore," McKenzie said following the September confirmation. "Our next steps will include the scoping of a full-scale production plant to process high demand specialty metals, possibly in the Houston area, and preparation for the licensing and joint-venturing of our pre-existing catalogue of SuperLig products – which include dozens of customized molecules designed to locate and appropriate a variety of specialty metals – via a hub and spoke growth model."
Ucore has budgeted US$690,000 to fund the detailed engineering and preliminary planning of the SuperLig strategic metals complex, the first hub of the growth model mentioned by Ucore's CEO.
The initial feedstock for this industrial-scale plant is expected to be sourced from recycling, chips and filings from machining operations, and tailings-generation partners in the automotive and rare earth permanent magnet industries.
While Texas is considered a top contender for this first commercial scale strategic metals separation hub, Ucore said the final locale of the complex will be heavily dependent upon transportation logistics.
Ucore envisions developing hubs at strategic ocean-accessible locations around the globe by 2020. The company's Bokan Mountain rare earth project in Alaska is one such location. Germany, India and Angola are international destinations being considered under the company's aggressive strategic positioning plan.
"Our bench scale testing commenced two short years ago, followed by successful industrial pilot testing over the past year, and now culminating with a near term transition to production. The development arc has been a fast and effective one, and we intend to continue this momentum in the months ahead," explained McKenzie.