A North of 60 rare earths supply chain
Vital and Ucore sign MOU for critical North American REE supply chain with links in NWT, Saskatchewan, and Alaska North of 60 Mining News – October 29, 2021
Last updated 11/18/2021 at 4:02pm
A recent agreement between Vital Metals Ltd. and Ucore Rare Metals Inc. marks a major milestone in establishing a complete North American rare earths supply chain with links in Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan, and Alaska.
Vital has already established Canada's only rare earths mine at its Nechalacho project in Northwest Territories and is building a processing facility in Saskatchewan to upgrade the high-grade ore into a midstream carbonated product with a mix of rare earths.
Ucore is advancing plans to develop an REE separation facility in Alaska that would provide the link in a supply chain that offers manufacturers with a completely North American supply of the individual rare earth oxides needed for a wide array of modern technologies, including electric vehicles, renewable energy, computers, smartphones, and military equipment.
"The combination of our efforts clearly work together towards the collective goal of establishing an ex-China rare earth supply chain to ensure that Western world manufacturers have access to North American produced and sourced rare earth oxides," said Ucore Rare Metals COO Mike Schrider.
Dominating the global rare earths markets for more than 40 years, China accounted for roughly 60% of all the REEs mined and approximately 80% of the separation and purification of these elements during 2020.
While MP Materials' Mountain Pass Mine in California's Mojave Desert does produce a significant amount of rare earths, it does not have the capacity to separate concentrates produced there into useable individual rare earths.
Instead, MP Materials currently ships its concentrates to China for separation. North American manufacturers then buy rare earth metals and upgraded products imbued with these elements from the Middle Kingdom and other overseas suppliers.
As such, the U.S. currently relies on foreign countries for 100% of its supply of separated rare earth oxides. And more than 80% of these critical metals are imported from China, either directly or via secondary countries.
"For far too long the U.S. sat on the sidelines while China strategically built out production and processing capabilities that have resulted in almost total dominance of the rare earth supply chain," National Mining Association President and CEO Rich Nolan said earlier this year. "Ucore's vision and plan show that need not be the case."
With a preliminary offtake agreement for Vital, rare earth carbonates produced in Canada and a second agreement with Southeast Conference to help secure the funding for a planned separation facility in Alaska, Ucore's vision of establishing a critical link in an emerging North American REE supply chain is coming into much sharper focus.
Vital NWT mine
This burgeoning North American REE supply chain begins at Nechalacho, the first and only rare earths mine in Canada.
Nechalacho produced its first rare earths ore in June, two short years after Australia-based Vital Metals initiated a unique strategy that leverages the very high-grade ore coming to surface and modern mining technologies to quickly establish an operation with a very small environmental footprint.
North T, the first deposit being mined at Nechalacho, hosts 101,000 metric tons of resources averaging 9% 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 dirt moving company majority-owned by the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, to mine the high-grade rare earth ore at Nechalacho.
"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.
Cheetah Resources Corp., Vital's Canadian subsidiary, is utilizing a TOMRA x-ray transmission (XRT) sorter to upgrade the ore mined at North T to a concentrate that is expected to contain greater than 30% rare earth oxides.
Without the need for a complex processing facility or tailings storage, 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.
REE hub in Saskatchewan
The next link in the North American rare earths supply chain being established in partnership with Ucore is Vital's rare earth carbonate production plant currently being built adjacent to Saskatchewan Research Council's REE facility in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
"Our first shipment of ore is due to leave Nechalacho this month and we expect to start feeding into the plant before the end of CY2021 (calendar year 2021), with commissioning to follow," Atkins said in early October.
This plant is being built to have a startup production capacity of 1,000 metric tons per year, which is 50% higher than originally planned, with a second stage of expansion to 2,000 metric tons per year.
"Vital has procured all key equipment required to process REE ore from our Nechalacho operation in the Northwest Territories into rare earth carbonate at the Saskatoon plant, including oversizing of some items to enable us to increase production in our second stage of operations," Atkins said.
The only initial equipment not sized for the phase-two expansion is the leaching tanks, which can be easily added when needed. Vital says this selectivity in oversizing equipment is based on its management team's previous experience in commissioning similar plants and will help ensure ramp-up occurs as smoothly as possible.
By mid-October, the Saskatoon processing facility was already taking shape, with foundation work complete, electrical services installed, and the construction of the building slated to be underway before the end of the month.
Saskatchewan Research Council, which provides a wide range of technological services to mining companies in Canada and around the globe, has been contracted to support the construction and operation of Vital's plant. The collaboration between SRC and Vital is expected to maximize synergies as they ramp up side-by-side rare earths processing facilities.
"Construction of our custom-built facility is underway at the same time as the SRC Rare Earth Processing Facility being built by Saskatchewan Research Council, and it's exciting to see this rare earths hub start to take shape in Saskatoon," said Atkins.
Much of the initial rare earths carbonate produced at Vital's custom-built Saskatoon facility will be shipped to REEtec AS, a Norway-based company that has developed an efficient and environmentally sound technology to separate the notoriously interlocked rare earths into the individual elements needed for high-tech and industrial applications.
Under an amended agreement signed earlier this month, Vital will sell rare earth carbonate product containing at least 750 metric tons of the magnet rare earths praseodymium and neodymium within 2,000 metric tons per year to REEtech. This is a 50% increase over the midstream rare earths product containing 470 metric tons of praseodymium and neodymium under a previous agreement between the companies.
"This 50% increase in product to be sold to REEtec represents a vote of confidence in Vital Metals' ability to guarantee feedstock to the European rare earths supply chain," said Atkins. "This increase will result in the expansion of our Saskatoon plant to double capacity by the end of 2023 with REEtec taking 75% of the plant capacity from that time."
North American supply chain
On the heels of the deal to ship more rare earths carbonate to Norway-based REEtec, Vital entered into a separate agreement to supply Ucore with some of this midstream REE product produced in Saskatchewan.
"This agreement is an important and exciting entrance into the North American downstream rare earth supply chain," said Atkins. "We are particularly excited that, similarly with REEtec's position in the European market, Ucore represents the most advanced new rare earth separation company entering into the North American market."
This entrance into the North American rare earths market will come with the development of the Alaska Strategic Metals Complex, or Alaska SMC, a rare earths and critical minerals separation and purification facility planned for development near the town of Ketchikan on the Southeast Alaska panhandle.
And much like Vital, Ucore believes time is of the essence when it comes to establishing North American supplies of rare earths, especially with the global transition to electric vehicle and renewable energy technologies that are driving massive new demand for these elements.
"Once we shift to an electric vehicle economy, we have got to make sure we have the materials for those manufacturing jobs or else we are going to lose those jobs," Ucore COO Schrider told Mining News.
This sense of urgency is why Ucore drew a line in the sand with Alaska2023, a business plan with an aggressive 2023 deadline for the development of the Alaska SMC.
A preliminary agreement for a supply of a mixed rare earth product to feed this separation facility is a major step that should help Ucore secure the funding it needs to meet its targets.
Under a nonbinding memorandum of understanding announced on Oct. 19, Vital will sell a minimum of 500 metric tons of rare earths oxides, not counting cerium, to Ucore by 2024 and will expand its Canadian operations to supply at least 50% of Ucore's planned 5,000 metric ton per year capacity at Alaska SMC by 2026.
"This partnership with Vital is an integral step in the development of the Alaska SMC, as Ucore continues to cultivate relationships with potential like-minded upstream and downstream partners in the evolving Western world market; with the ultimate goal of ensuring that original equipment manufacturers transforming to an electrified economy continue to have access to a comprehensive North American raw material and finished goods supply chain," said Ucore Rare Metals Chairman and CEO Pat Ryan.
RapidSX tech for Alaska SMC
The planned Alaska SMC will be equipped with RapidSX, a proprietary technology being developed by Ucore's subsidiary Innovation Metals Corp. to extract pure rare earth oxides out of midstream products such as the mixed REE carbonates to be produced at Vital's Saskatoon facility.
RapidSX is not so much a new technology as an enormous upgrade to the conventional solvent extraction techniques that have been the standard for separating rare earths for more than 40 years. While effective, traditional solvent extraction is a long process that sometimes takes hundreds of stages to extract all the rare earths from a solution containing the notoriously interlocked elements.
Utilizing an innovative column-based platform developed by Gareth Hatch and his team at Innovation Metals, RapidSX is much faster, compact, and environmentally sound than these traditional solvent extraction techniques popularized in China.
Hatch and his team are advancing this technology toward commercialization at Innovation Metals' demonstration plant in Ontario.
A small sample of mixed rare earths carbonate provided by Vital before the end of the year will give the innovation metals team the opportunity to test RapidSX with the likely initial feedstock for the Alaska SMC.
"Once the IMC team is through with the commercialization steps that are underway right now, we will actually take the Vital material and bring that to the plant as part of the engineering process for the development of the Alaska SMC," Schrider told Mining News.
A second one-metric-ton sample of material from Vital's Saskatoon plant is slated to be provided to Ucore during the second half of 2022, which will allow for a more robust test before building the RapidSX circuit in Alaska.
Ucore intends to begin commissioning the Alaska SMC by the end of 2023 and be producing individual rare earth oxides in early 2024. The separation plant is expected to start off with a 2,000 metric ton per year total rare earth oxide separation and purification capacity and be expanded to 5,000 metric tons per year by 2026.
This dovetails well with Vital's plans to scale up production at both its rare earths mine in Northwest Territories and midstream REE production facility in Saskatchewan.
"We look forward to further developing our relationship with Ucore with a view to finalizing a definitive offtake agreement and the commencement of supply of feedstock for the Alaska SMC," said Atkins.
SE Alaska complex
Ucore's plan to begin delivering rare earths into North American supply chains by 2024 took a major step forward earlier this month when the rare metals mining and technologies company entered into a memorandum of agreement with Alaska's Southeast Conference for the evaluation and potential development of a Natural Resource Development Complex that would host the Alaska SMC.
"The establishment of the MOA between Ucore and Southeast Conference is an important moment in the development of the Alaska SMC and represents just one of many envisioned partnerships as Ucore advances the establishment of a robust and independent rare earth supply chain for the United States and its allies – with an Alaskan-centric focus," said Schrider.
Incorporated in 1958 to advocate for the establishment of a transportation network that eventually became the Alaska Marine Highway System, Southeast Conference has long been supporting strong economies, healthy communities, and a quality environment in Southeast Alaska.
As the federally and state recognized development organization for Southeast Alaska, Southeast Conference is investigating the potential of leveraging access to federal economic development grants to fund an industrial park that would host Ucore's Alaska SMC and have space available for other natural resource projects.
"This collaboration with Ucore as the anchor tenant for the Natural Resource Development Complex will stimulate complementary growth in the mineral sector and attract other types of resource extraction entities that will benefit from the direct and indirect business and physical infrastructure improvements created by the development of the Alaska SMC," said Southeast Conference Executive Director Robert Venables.
Selecting the site for the Natural Resource Development Complex will be based on what would work for its anchor client, along with other Southeast Alaska economic development opportunities.
Ucore has long considered Ketchikan as the ideal locale for the Alaska SMC due to the port town's workforce, infrastructure, and proximity to Ucore's Bokan rare earths mine project on Prince of Wales Island.
Located about 35 miles from Ketchikan, the Dotson Ridge deposit at Bokan hosts roughly 31,722 metric tons of rare earth oxides, 17,715 metric tons titanium dioxide, 9,001 metric tons zirconium, 2,205 metric tons niobium, 464 metric tons vanadium, 231 metric tons beryllium, and 178 metric tons hafnium in the indicated category.
While the Alaska SMC would initially process rare earths bearing feedstock from third-party suppliers, Ucore ultimately plans to use this facility to separate rare earths, and other critical minerals mined from Bokan.
In the meantime, however, building the Alaska SMC in Ketchikan also works very well for processing rare earths carbonate from Vital's Saskatoon plant, which could be delivered by rail to Prince Rupert on British Columbia's west coast and a 115-mile ferry to Ketchikan.
In turn, the individual rare earths coming out of the Alaska SMC could easily be delivered to North American manufacturers of EVs, wind turbines, high-tech devices, and the growing number of other household, industrial, and military goods that benefit from the unique properties these elements offer.
"What our real objective here is to assist the United States in establishing that supply chain," said Schrider.
He says the REE supply chain Ucore and Vital are working to establish is only one of many that needs to be established to supply the massive demand being driven by the current shift to electric mobility.
"We are cognizant that what we are doing is critical for the future and it is not just us, it is going to take the entirety of the efforts in the United States that are working toward the same goals," the Ucore Rare Metals COO told Mining News.