Ucore regroups and advances Alaska SMC
Streamlines management, secures rare earth carbonate feed North of 60 Mining News – April 22, 2022
Last updated 4/28/2022 at 2:54pm
In preparation of bringing its Alaska Strategic Metals Complex online in 2024, Ucore Rare Metals Inc. has streamlined its management and technical teams and secured new feedstock for the future rare earths separation plant.
To be developed near the Southeast Alaska port town of Ketchikan, the Alaska SMC is a processing facility that will do the hard work of separating rare earths into the individual elements that are used in a variety of high-tech applications.
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.
Several of the lanthanide elements are used for the permanent magnets in electric vehicle motors, wind turbines, computer hard drives, high fidelity speakers, and other high-tech applications. Other rare earths are used for the color phosphors in televisions and computer monitors, various alloys, lasers, rechargeable batteries, and catalysts.
Rare earth deposits typically contain some mix of all these elements and are mined together. The difficulty is separating these closely related and tightly interlocked elements once they are recovered.
Untangling these elements so that they can be used across a wide span of high-tech and industrial sectors is where Ucore and its Alaska SMC come in.
Reorganizing Innovation Metals
Two years ago, Ucore acquired Innovation Metals Corp., a private Canada-based company that developed RapidSX for the separation and purification of rare earth and other critical metals to be used at the Alaska facility.
RapidSX is basically a modernization and technological upgrade to the conventional solvent extraction method that has been the standard for separating rare earths for more than 40 years.
Traditional solvent extraction, which remains the primary method of REE separation in China, involves running a mixed rare earths product through vats of various solvents that progressively separate the notoriously interlocked rare earths into individual elements – a long process that requires dozens of steps and a relatively large environmental footprint.
Utilizing an innovative column-based platform developed by IMC, RapidSX is more than ten times faster and much more environmentally sound than the mixer-settler units used for traditional SX separation.
"Ucore's May 2020 acquisition of IMC and RapidSX was a transformative decision for the company," said Ucore Rare Metals Chairman and CEO Pat Ryan.
Testing of this separation technology was completed last year and is now ready to be upgraded to a demonstration-scale plant before being implemented at the Alaska SMC.
In February, Innovation Metals Chairman and CEO Gareth Hatch, President Tyler Dinwoodie, and COO Kurt Forrester turned in their resignations. This forced Ucore to reorganize the management structure to continue to advance RapidSX and its Alaska SMC project.
To do this, the company turned to partners Kingston Process Metallurgy Inc. and Mech-Chem Associates Inc., which have played key roles in the development and testing of RapidSX.
KPM founders Alain Roy and Boyd Davis have taken more prominent positions in the Kingston RapidSX Commercialization and Development Facility in Ontario, which is where the demonstration plant is being developed.
Under their leadership, the KPM team of scientists and engineers will be working closely with Forrester and Jaan Hurditch, the RapidSX platform development manager at Innovation Metals, on the RapidSX demonstration plant, now scheduled for commissioning in mid-2022.
At the same time, Mech-Chem is working with Ucore to prepare the process designs for the production operations to manufacture commercial-grade rare earth oxides from rare earth concentrates at the new Alaska SMC manufacturing facility.
"This new SMC manufacturing facility will produce high purity REOs to meet the growing North American market demand for these products as the United States shifts toward electrification. Mech-Chem is proud to be a partner in the engineering, design, and construction of Ucore's US-based rare earth oxide manufacturing facility," said Mech-Chem President Ralph Cook.
As part of the streamlining process, Innovation Metals will be directed by the Ucore board, which is led by Ryan.
"The RapidSX technology platform uniquely positions Ucore to compete with the world in the most difficult aspect of the rare earth supply chain - the separation of REEs into high-purity individual REOs. And to do so in an efficient and environmentally friendly manner based on industry-established and well-proven chemistry. I am very proud of the team we have assembled to enable this transition to commercialization, and we look forward to delivering for our shareholders and for North America," said the Ucore chairman.
Securing Alaska SMC supply
Reorganized and ready to move forward, Ucore announced that it has entered into a preliminary agreement to source mixed rare earth carbonate from Germany-based thyssenkrupp Materials Trading for processing at the Alaska SMC.
"thyssenkrupp Materials Trading is a stalwart in the global critical metals industry and the perfect prospective partner for Ucore's development of an independent rare earth supply chain in North America," said Ryan.
Under a memorandum of understanding between the companies, thyssenkrupp will supply Ucore with feedstock for the demonstration plant in Ontario and at least 1,000 tons per year of this rare earth precursor material for the Alaska SMC beginning in 2024.
"Together with our partner, we now have the opportunity to significantly contribute to the establishment of a strategically important and reliable supply chain of rare earth products in North America through the supply of high-quality carbonate," thyssenkrupp Materials Trading CEO Wolfgang Schnittker said about the deal with Ucore.
The Alaska SMC will be initially designed to produce up to 2,000 metric tons of individual rare earth oxides per year, and then expand to more than 5,000 metric tons per year by 2026.
In addition to the material to be supplied by thyssenkrupp, Ucore plans to process rare earth carbonates produced by Vital Metals Ltd., which has a rare earths mine in Northwest Territories and a processing facility in Saskatchewan.
Under an MOU signed by the parties in October, Vital will sell to Ucore 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.
The agreements with thyssenkrupp and Vital are key to Ucore's mission of the Alaska SMC part of a complete rare earths supply chain with no links to China.
"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," Ryan said last year.