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By Shane Lasley
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Ucore builds REE separation plant team

To apply for Pentagon funds to design, build US-based facility

 

Last updated 11/1/2019 at 3:49am

Pixabay

A pair of F-35 fighters flying over Alaska. According to the U.S. Air Force, each of these advanced military aircraft contains nearly a thousand pounds of rare earth elements.

Ucore Rare Metals Inc. has added two prominent technical advisors to a team it has pulled together to design a heavy rare earth element solvent extraction plant to be developed in Southeast Alaska.

These advisors include SGS Canada, a testing and certification firm that has invested significantly in solvent extraction design and testing facilities, which includes an SX pilot plant at its facility in Lakefield, Ontario.

Ucore said this pilot plant has the capacity to demonstrate the validity of North American rare earth separations, such as the heavy rare earth element resources at the company's Bokan Mountain project in Southeast Alaska.

Ucore has also engaged Mech-Chem Associates, a Norfolk, Massachusetts-based engineering and design firm, to assist with the SX Plant design and construction.

"SGS, Mech-Chem and Ucore collectively represent a potentially game-changing capability to develop a rare earth separation facility in the U.S. in the near future," Ucore Rare Metals President and CEO Jim McKenzie said during an Oct. 22 announcement of the SX advisory team. "These participants bring unsurpassed capability in the areas of design, engineering, piloting, and testing of mineral processing facilities."

Pentagon funding

The formation of this team comes at a time when the Pentagon is seeking to bolster the domestic separation and processing of heavy rare earth elements.

In July, President Trump made an official determination under Section 303 of the Defense Production Act of 1950 that domestic production, separation and manufacturing of rare earths is "essential to the national defense" of the U.S.

Title 3 of the Defense Production Act allows a U.S. President to incentivize the domestic industrial base with the goal of expanding the production and supply of critical materials and goods. Authorized incentives include loans, loan guarantees, direct purchases and purchase commitments, and the authority to procure and install equipment in private industrial facilities.

At about the same time, the Pentagon sent out requests for information asking the mining sector to provide plans for developing REE mines and processing facilities in the U.S.

In its response to the Department of Defense requests for information, Ucore noted its plans to develop a solvent extraction processing and separation plant in Southeast Alaska that will focus on producing individual HREE oxides. The company also noted Bokan-Dotson Ridge as a long-term, sustainable source of rare earths.

Now, DoD is expected to take the next step in its REE initiative under Title 3.

"The U.S. Department of Defense is now pursuing the ways and means of establishing HREE separation capabilities within the U.S.," said Ucore Rare Metals Chairman Pat Ryan. "More specifically, a solicitation for the separation of HREE is expected to be issued as early as this week. Without a doubt, this highly focused opportunity fits hand-in-glove with Ucore's HREE advantages, and our already substantial financing pipeline from the state of Alaska. We look forward to advancing our multi-point solution to the emergent U.S. HREE supply chain."

The Alaska funding mentioned by Ryan is in the form of a loan from Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority.

In 2014, the Alaska Legislature authorized AIDEA to invest up to US$145 million to help finance the development of a mine at Ucore's Bokan Mountain rare earth deposit on Prince of Wales Island and a REE separation facility, which is envision to be built at the Southeast Alaska port town of Ketchikan.

Search for a solution

Over the past decade, Ucore has focused much of its efforts on identifying and testing an efficient and environmentally sound solution for separating rare earths on American soil.

The primary reason for this quest, as well as Pentagon's interest in rare earth separation, is that China has cornered the market on this link in the supply chain.

While there are several potentially viable sources of rare earths in the United States, there are no domestic facilities capable of separating the 16 notoriously interlocked elements into individual metals that can be used by manufacturers in America's high-tech and defense sectors.

In fact, the one REE mine currently operating in the U.S. – Mountain Pass in California – ships its concentrates to China for separation. American manufacturers, in turn, must acquire these separated REEs from China – either as metals or, more commonly, in the form of magnets and other value-added goods.

This search for a cutting edge REE separation technology led Ucore to IBC Advanced Technologies and that company's proprietary molecular recognition technology, commonly known as MRT.

The basic idea behind the MRT process is that "SuperLig resins" are engineered to grab ions based on various traits such as size, chemistry and geometry.

Using a solution derived from the Bokan project in Southeast Alaska, IBC and Ucore demonstrated that this technology can efficiently pull out individual high-purity rare earth elements, including dysprosium to 99.99 percent purity.

After proving this technology works at the pilot plant scale, Ucore had planned to use it in the Strategic Metals Complex (SMC), a commercial scale REE separation facility slated to be built near the town of Ketchikan, which is about 35 miles from Bokan.

The two former partners, however, landed on opposite sides of a legal battle over Ucore's bid to buy IBC.

Ucore claims legal rights to acquire IBC per a 2015 agreement between the REE separation collaborators. IBC argues that Ucore forfeited these rights due to breach of contract.

With MRT tied up in court for the near-term, Ucore has decided to move ahead with the already proven solvent extraction (SX) technology for rare earth separation at the Strategic Metals Complex.

Ucore still aspires to incorporate MRT into SMC and this new and more efficient REE separation technology could be added to the processing facility once the legal battle is over.

"Such an approach effectively mitigates the current impasse but does not preclude the use of MRT in the mid-term," McKenzie wrote. "MRT, once legally liberated for use in REE applications, holds substantial promise as a complementary separation stage, potentially taking output product from SX circuits to otherwise impracticable levels of purity."

A key ingredient

In the meantime, Ucore is moving forward with using solvent extraction to recover the 63.54 million pounds of rare earth identified so far in the Dotson Ridge deposit at Bokan.

Roughly 40 percent of the rare earths in the Dotson Ridge deposit at Bokan Mountain are in the heavy REE category.

Heavy rare earths include the elements samarium, europium, terbium and dysprosium – all considered of strategic importance to the Pentagon.

Solvay, a Belgium-based advanced materials company, has formulated a solvent extraction product specifically for heavy rare earths.

This could be a key ingredient in Ucore's pursuit of an SX solution for the heavy rare earth-rich deposit at Bokan.

Peggy Greb, U.S. Department of Agriculture

Rare earths consist of 16 elements that are increasingly important to a growing number of high-tech and defense applications. Clockwise from top center: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium, and gadolinium.

The company said it is planning to use the Solay product to create one of the most efficient and environmentally sound solvent extractions processes in the world, which will then be implemented into the separation plant to be designed for Southeast Alaska.

The company says the use of the highly stable Solvay product, in conjunction with the expertise of SGS and Mech-Chem, provides for a persuasive submission to the Pentagon for consideration.

"No other proponent has assembled the combination of experience, capability and pre-approved financing represented by Ucore," said Ucore Rare Metals COO Mike Schrider. "The SX team, utilizing products from world-leading solvent extraction reagent producer Solvay, makes for a compelling and highly proven SX platform. We couldn't be more pleased with the combination of talent and resources and look forward to submitting the highest-quality, lowest-risk proposal to bring HREE production to the U.S."

 

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