Made in North America rare earths return
From Texas to the Canadian Arctic, new REE projects emerge Critical Minerals Alliances - September 2021
Last updated 9/16/2021 at 9:26am
Roughly 38,000 metric tons of rare earth concentrates were produced from American soil during 2020, yet the United States remains 100% reliant on foreign countries for its supply of these 17 elements critical to our modern high-tech society – an apparent paradox that speaks to the complexities of these enigmatic metals.
The irony of rare earth elements (REEs) begins with their name, which is at the same time a misnomer and accurate descriptor.
"All the REEs except promethium are more abundant than silver, gold, or platinum in Earth's crust, on average. Thus, REEs are not rare in terms of average crustal abundance, but concentrated and economic deposits of REEs are unusual," the U.S. Geological Survey penned in a 2018 report on critical minerals.
When an economic rare earth deposit is discovered, it will typically have some combination of the 16 stable rare earths.
The Mountain Pass Mine in California's Mojave Desert, the only operation in the U.S., and the newly opened Nechalacho Mine in Canada's Northwest Territories are the only North American operations to produce these elements
Well, almost produce these elements.
While finding economically viable deposits of rare earths is not easy, the real complexity comes with separating these notoriously tightly interlocked elements into usable rare earth metals.
This gets to the heart of why rare earths are mined in the U.S., yet the country is 100% reliant on imports for the metals.
Once mined, the rare earth concentrates produced at Mountain Pass are shipped to China to be separated into the individual elements. American manufacturers then buy rare earth metals and upgraded products imbued with these elements from the Middle Kingdom and other overseas suppliers.
From 2016 through 2019, roughly 80% of the rare earth compounds and metals imported into the U.S. came from China, 5% from Estonia, 4% from Japan, and 4% from Malaysia.
Several companies in the U.S. and Canada are in various stages of developing new technologies for separating rare earths and establishing facilities to enable rare earth oxides production in North America.
Separating the rare earths
Though often referred to as a single entity, rare earths are a group of 17 elements – the 15 lanthanides that make up the second row from the bottom on the periodic table plus yttrium and scandium, a pair of elements almost always found in REE deposits and have similar characteristics – each with its own distinct traits.
The lanthanides are divided into two categories, heavy and light rare earth elements.
Light REEs make up the first seven elements of the lanthanide series and include lanthanum, for which the series gets its name; cerium, used for polishing high-quality optical surfaces; praseodymium, valued for its magnetic and optical properties; and neodymium, an extremely magnetic element.
"The most powerful magnet known to man is a neodymium magnet, one of the rare earths, so all electric cars have neodymium magnets in the electric motors," said Michael Silver, CEO of American Elements, a Los Angeles-based distributor of rare earths and other advanced materials.
The remaining eight lanthanides are considered heavy REEs, which are less abundant in most deposits and tend to be more valuable.
Some of the most commonly used of these heavy rare earths are europium, used primarily in red and blue phosphors in televisions and computer monitors; terbium, used in high-temperature magnets and to create a green phosphor; and dysprosium, which improves the durability of magnets in electric vehicle motors and wind turbine generators.
Then you have scandium, which when combined with aluminum becomes an extremely strong yet lightweight alloy used to make everything from Mars orbiters to baseball bats.
Finally, there is yttrium, an element that has numerous rare earth-esque attributes such as creating a red phosphor for televisions and other displays, as well as garnets used in lasers.
Rare earths are also vital ingredients to a wide array of U.S. military hardware, from helmet-mounted radios to laser-guided missiles.
A recent Pentagon report estimates that roughly 920 pounds of rare earths go into each F-35 fighter; 5,200 lb go into every Arleigh Burke DDG-51 destroyer; and a single SSN-774 Virginia-class submarine requires 9,200 lb of these strategic metals.
This puts the U.S. Department of Defense in the uncomfortable position of depending on a strategic rival for key ingredients of its military hardware.
Former Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord said domestic mines are not the primary hurdle for securing reliable supplies of rare earths for the wide array of military hardware and equipment that rely on the unique properties these enigmatic elements offer.
"The challenge is really the processing of them and having facilities to do that because quite often China mines them elsewhere and brings them back to China to process them," Lord said in August. "So, we are looking at a variety of mechanisms to stand up processing facilities."
While Lord has been replaced under the Biden administration, the Pentagon's position on establishing domestic rare earths processing has not.
In February, the Department of Defense announced that it is contributing $30.4 million to Lynas Rare Earths Ltd.'s efforts to establish a separation facility in Texas capable of producing the light rare earths used for petroleum refining, glass additives, and magnets used in electric vehicle drivetrain motors and precision-guided munitions.
Lynas already operates a rare earths processing plant in Malaysia, which up until this year was the only such facility outside of China.
"Upon completion of this project, if successful, Lynas will produce approximately 25% of the worlds' supply of rare earth element oxides," the Pentagon penned in a February statement announcing its funding contribution for the Texas plant.
The rare earths state
Texas, a state synonymous with the crude that lubricated the industrial revolution and fueled U.S. transportation throughout the 20th century, is emerging as an American source of the rare earths helping to generate renewable electricity and propel EVs into the 21st.
In addition to the REE separation facility being co-funded by the Pentagon, the Lone Star State is also home to Round Top, an enormous rare earths project that is also enriched in lithium and 10 other minerals considered critical to the U.S.
A preliminary economic assessment completed in 2019 outlines plans for a mine at Round Top would produce 2,212 metric tons of rare earths per year, including healthy supplies of all six permanent magnet rare earth oxides – 200 metric tons of dysprosium, 180 metric tons of neodymium, 67 metric tons of praseodymium, 65 metric tons of gadolinium, 65 metric tons of samarium, and 23 metric tons of terbium – once the mine reaches full production.
In addition, the mine summarized in the PEA would produce about 10,000 metric tons of lithium per year, which would help fill the expanding electric vehicle battery market.
According to current calculations, the Round Top deposit is large enough to supply the REEs, lithium, and other critical minerals at this rate for more than a century.
USA Rare Earth LLC, which owns an 80% interest in Round Top, raised US$50 million earlier this year to complete a prefeasibility study that will further refine the economic and design parameters outlined in the PEA, finish testing at the company's pilot rare earths separation plant in Colorado, and build a demonstration scale plant at Round Top this year.
The demonstration plant, which includes test heap leach pads and an upscaled version of the continuous ion exchange processing being piloted in Colorado, is expected to support a definitive feasibility study and permitting, as well as produce representative materials for evaluation by prospective customers.
"This will enable us to expedite bringing Round Top into production and provide the necessary materials for EVs and advanced manufacturing, including the essential materials for chipsets, semiconductors and 5G, all of which are hosted at Round Top and are the focus of President Biden's recent executive order," USA Rare Earth CEO Pini Althaus said in June.
While the separation of rare earths in Texas will be a major step for an all-American REE supply chain, USA Rare Earth is already working on adding another link to connect Round Top to the electric vehicle and other high-technology manufacturers that utilize the powerful magnets made from rare earths.
Last year, USA Rare Earth purchased neodymium-iron-boron permanent magnet manufacturing equipment that Hitachi Metals America briefly used at a facility in North Carolina that has the capacity to supply roughly 17% of the U.S. rare earth permanent magnet market and generate nearly $145 million in annual sales at 2019 prices.
This magnet making equipment is in storage and USA Rare Earth is narrowing down locations to set it back up. USA Rare Earth expects to make a final decision on the magnet plant's locale soon and the first REE magnets to be manufactured there by the end of 2021.
Coupled with the prospect of Round Top lithium going into batteries, the Texas project is rapidly establishing itself as a key first link in two supply chains vital to the envisioned transition to renewable energy and electric mobility in the U.S.
"We are well positioned to reestablish a fully-integrated, environmentally-friendly and U.S.-based mine-to-magnet and mine-to-battery supply chain," said Althaus.
Vital Canada REE mine
Defying the common idea that bigger is better when it comes to mining, Australia-based Vital Metals Ltd. became the first company to produce rare earths from a deposit in Canada by leveraging a small but very high-grade rare earths deposit coming to the surface at its Nechalacho project in Northwest Territories.
A scoop of ore dug from the North T open pit at Nechalacho on June 28 marked a historic milestone for Vital, Canada, and its First People – Canada became a rare earth producing nation.
This first REE ore mined at Nechalacho comes just two years after Vital initiated a unique strategy to establish a mine at North T, a deposit with 101,000 metric tons of resources averaging 9.01% total rare earth oxide. This is nearly an order of magnitude higher grade than most REE deposits, which tend to average around 1% TREO or less.
Vital contracted Nahanni Construction, a Northwest Territories-based contractor majority owned by the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, to mine the high-grade rare earth ore at Nechalacho.
"The Yellowknives Dene First Nation is pleased to be the first indigenous group in Canada to be responsible for mineral extraction on their traditional territory," Yellowknives Dene First Nations Chief Ernest Betsina said earlier this year. "When indigenous people conduct the mining operations, they are better able to control the process, resulting in better safeguarding of the environment."
Cheetah Resources Ltd., Vital's Canadian subsidiary, is utilizing a TOMRA x-ray transmission (XRT) ore sorter to upgrade the ore to a concentrate that is expected to contain greater than 30% rare earth oxides.
Without the need for a complex ore processing facility, the Nechalacho Mine is something akin to a gravel quarry – simply mine and crush near surface rock and sort out the best material with little or no water and zero chemicals.
"Mining is changing. While sorter technology is widely used in diamond mining, this is the first time that sensor-based sorting has been used as a single step to produce a metal ore concentrate. It is much more environmentally friendly," said TOMRA engineer Russell Tjossem, who trained members of the Yellowknives First Nation to operate the sorter.
"We are developing Nechalacho using the most sustainable methods possible, which includes the use of local labor so that we can support the communities surrounding our project," said Vital Metals Managing Director Geoff Atkins.
The REE concentrates coming out of the sorter at Nechalacho are being shipped to Vital's rare earth carbonate production plant adjacent to Saskatchewan Research Council's REE facility in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
The final step of Vital's power-of-partnerships strategy is being carried out by Norway-based REEtec, which is using a unique and environmentally friendly process to separate the mixed rare earth carbonate product produced in Saskatchewan into the individual rare earth oxides needed by the high-tech, defense, and other industrial sectors.
Under an offtake agreement with REEtec, Vital will provide the Norwegian company with mixed rare earth carbonate product containing 1,000 metric tons of rare earth oxides, not counting the cerium, over the first five years.
The magnet rare earths praseodymium and neodymium are expected to account for about 447 metric tons, or roughly 45% of the annual rare earth oxides covered under the preliminary offtake agreement.
Vital intends to scale up Nechalacho output and the agreement with REEtec provides the companies with the option to increase this offtake volume up to 5,000 metric tons of rare earth oxides per year.
More Canadian high-grade REEs
The smaller is better when it comes to rapidly scaling up rare earth production strategy may also work well at Alces Lake, a project in northern Saskatchewan that hosts some of the highest REE grades ever discovered.
While a resource has yet to be calculated for the high-grade zones discovered at Alces Lake, grades as high as 16.1% total rare earth oxides over 15.6 meters and 31% TREO over 2.7 meters encountered during drilling completed by Appia Energy Corp. indicate the project could host a resource with grades multiples above the global average.
Located in northern Saskatchewan, Alces Lake is a 35,400-acre (14,300 hectares) property that has been explored for its uranium and rare earths potential since the 1950s.
The true potential of this property, however, was not revealed until Appia geologists collected samples with grades as high as 35.7% TREOS. Follow-up surface sampling in 2017 turned up even higher grades – 49.6% TREO over 0.95 meters and 45.9% TREO over 1.85 meters. A boulder at Wilson, a zone about 100 meters southeast of Ivan, contained 30.8% TREO.
Being located in Saskatchewan, a central Canadian province that is investing in becoming a North American rare earths leader, is also advantageous.
In August, the Saskatchewan government announced it is investing C$31 million in a facility with the ability to both concentrate ore and separate the concentrates into individual rare earth elements. This is the same facility where Vital has located its own REE carbonate facility.
"Appia is very pleased and excited to learn that the Saskatoon rare earth processing plant will be up and running by the end of 2022, especially since it is in such close proximity to Appia's high-grade critical rare earth Alces Lake project," said Appia Energy President and CEO Tom Drivas.
The same mineralization that hosts world-class rare earth grades also happens to host very high concentrations of gallium, another mineral critical to the U.S. and Canada.
More information on the Alces Lake gallium can be read at Techy gallium overshadowed by rare earths in the current edition of Critical Minerals Alliances.
Alaska 2023 plan
Ucore Rare Metals Inc. has a strategy to establish Alaska as another North American rare earth oxides hub.
Dubbed Alaska2023, this business is centered on building a commercial-scale RapidSX rare earths separation and purification plant in Southeast Alaska by 2023.
A search for an economically viable and environmentally sound method of separating rare earths led Ucore to Innovation Metals Inc., a private Canada-based company led by Gareth Hatch, an expert in both rare earths and metallurgy.
Solvent extraction, which involves the use of various chemicals to first break apart the rare earths into groups and then into individual elements, has long been the preferred method of REE separation. With its inexpensive labor and lax environmental standards, China has utilized this technique to dominate the business of rare earth processing for four decades.
Innovation's RapidSX takes the time-tested solvent extraction technique to a new level by utilizing an innovative column-based platform that is much faster and environmentally sustainable than its predecessor.
With the goal of incorporating this proprietary technology into the Alaska Strategic Metals Complex, the name of its planned Southeast Alaska processing facility, Ucore acquired Innovation in 2020.
Ucore also plans to eventually establish a mine at Bokan Mountain, a rare earths and critical minerals project about 35 miles away from where the company plans to build the SMC.
According to a calculation completed in 2019, the Dotson Ridge deposit at Bokan hosts 4.79 million metric tons of indicated resource averaging 0.6% (31,722 metric tons) rare earth oxides, 460 parts per million (2,205 metric tons) niobium; 1,880 ppm (9,001 metric tons) zirconium; 48 ppm (231 metric tons) beryllium; 37 ppm (178 metric tons) hafnium; 0.37% (17,715 metric tons) titanium dioxide; and 97 ppm (464 metric tons) vanadium.
While Bokan could be a future source of REEs and other critical metals, Ucore's immediate priority is to begin producing rare earths at the planned Alaska SMC.
"The Alaska2023 timelines are aggressive and necessary to ensure US participation in a variety of emerging high-tech industries such as information technology, communication and electric vehicles," said Ucore Rare Metals CEO Pat Ryan. "Is Ucore up for the challenge? Just watch us."