Canada boasts substantial REE resources
Promising deposits span the country, but exploration lags Metal Tech News Weekly Edition – January 22, 2020
Last updated 6/27/2020 at 5:09am
Rare earth elements in Canada have recaptured the spotlight now that the United States has entered a new alliance with its northern neighbor to develop robust supply chains for critical minerals needed for important manufacturing sectors, including communication technology, aerospace and defense, and clean technology.
A final agreement between the two countries, reported in December, delivers on a commitment made by their leaders in June to advance joint initiatives to address shared mineral security concerns and ensure continued economic growth and the national security of both nations.
"Canada is in a unique position to strengthen global supply chains for critical minerals. We are proud to partner with the United States through the Energy Resource Governance Initiative, to advance responsible development of critical minerals and ensure mineral security," Seamus O'Regan, Canada's Minister of Natural Resources, said in a Dec. 18 statement.
Canada already ranks as a global leader in the production of many critical minerals and is an important supplier of 13 of the 35 minerals that the United States has identified as critical to its economic and national security, and has the potential to become a reliable source of other critical minerals, including rare earth elements, which are key components in many electronic devices that we use in our daily lives.
The northern nation is currently the largest supplier of potash, indium, aluminum and tellurium to the U.S. and the second-largest supplier of niobium, tungsten and magnesium. Canada also supplies roughly one quarter of U.S. uranium needs and has been a reliable U.S. source of this commodity for more than 75 years.
Substantial REE potential
But what is Canada's potential for producing rare earth elements and consistently delivering them to U.S. markets?
REE, a group of 15 elements referred to as the lanthanide series in the periodic table, are plentiful in nature but rarely found in economically recoverable deposits. Despite their name, rare earths are – with the exception of the radioactive promethium – relatively plentiful in the earth's crust, with cerium being the 25th most abundant element at 68 parts per million (more abundant than copper). Thulium and lutetium are two of the rarest REE on Earth. Yet, they are 200 times more abundant than gold.
But because of their geochemical properties, rare earth elements are typically dispersed and not often found concentrated as rare earth minerals in economically recoverable ore deposits.
These minerals, however, are increasingly in demand for key components in many modern electronic devices and in a variety of industrial applications.
Scandium and yttrium, while not true REE, are also included in the group because they exhibit similar properties to the lanthanides and are always found in the same ore bodies.
China is the world's largest producer of REE, accounting for more than 70 percent of global annual production, which totaled an estimated 120,000 metric tons in 2018.
Though no rare earths have been mined in Canada, geologists and prospectors have identified more than 35 sizable REE deposits rich enough to potentially sustain a mining operation, along with numerous occurrences of the important metals. The deposits, ranging from ones covering thousands of hectares to others covering only a few kilometers occur as far east as Labrador and as far west as British Columbia.
One of the largest of these deposits is the Hoidas Lake vein project in Saskatchewan, owned by Great Western Minerals Group. A decade ago, it was considered the most advanced REE project in Canada.
Possible future uranium mining in the Elliott Lake–Blind River district of Ontario could yield heavy REE and yttrium as by-products.
REE deposits also occur in peralkaline syenitic (a coarse-grained intrusive igneous rock) and granitic rocks in several places in Canada. The largest such deposits are located at Thor Lake in Northwest Territories and Strange Lake situated on the Quebec-Labrador border.
Carbonatite complexes in eastern Canada also contain REE mineralization. A niobium carbonatite at Oka, Quebec contains a moderate-sized rare earth resource and bastnaesite and monazite zones containing up to 4.5 percent light REE have been identiﬁed in the St. Honoré complex in Quebec, with one 80-meter drill intercept averaging more than 3 percent rare earth oxides.
Alkaline complexes in the Shallow Lake and Letitia Lake areas of Labrador, roughly 250 kilometers (155 miles) southeast of Strange Lake, include rocks with high yttrium content, while foliated syenite at Kipawa Lake, Ont., includes a 1,300 meter by 100-meter zone of yttrium- and zirconium-rich rock.
In addition, near-economic heavy REE and uranium mineralization occurs in sandstone of the late Precambrian Athabasca Group near Wheeler River in Alberta.
Still, other rare earth deposits of significant size likely remain undiscovered in Canada, given that 40 percent of the country's natural resource potential lies in northern, remote and isolated regions, especially in the three territories situated above 60 degrees latitude, geologists say.
This area contains only 12 percent of Canada's known mineral deposits, of which 76 percent are undeveloped.
REE resource a global leader
When asked about Canada's prospectivity for rare earth minerals, geologist Don Bubar said he believes the country's potential compares favorably with Australia, which ranks as one of the world's top sources of REE.
"Canada has similar diversity of geology, and the potential for all of the rare earths in the ground," Bubar told Metal Tech News in a Jan. 16 interview.
Bubar, who is president and CEO of Avalon Advanced Materials Inc., said Canada experienced a burst of exploration activity for rare earth minerals eight to 10 years ago "when China first talked about restricting its REE exports, but that subsided when the reality of development costs, the lack of understanding of the minerals and other hurdles became apparent."
He said China has created cost advantages such as less-restrictive environmental regulations and has attracted to China downstream users of REE such as high-tech manufacturers.
"With the emergence of clean technologies, Canada now has the ability to draw on its considerable REE resources to create a supply chain and attract high-tech manufacturers as well. This is our opportunity," Bubar added.
Avalon has worked for more than a decade on exploration and development of the Nechalacho REE project at Thor Lake, Northwest Territories.
Today, Nechalacho is known to contain the largest and most advanced REE deposits in Canada and is considered rich in other rare metals resources. This makes Avalon's northern project a potential near-term source of rare earths and other minerals, including lithium, zirconium, beryllium, niobium and tantalum.
Canada and the United States agreeing to work together on critical minerals production has ignited efforts to develop new REE projects.
Stirrings in Saskatchewan
Appia Energy Corp., for example, reported plans in mid-January to investigate the potential for developing the Alces Lake REE project in Saskatchewan, which it believes contains some of the highest-grade, rare earth oxide mineralization in the world.
Appia said it will extract a sample of the mineralization exposed at surface at Alces Lake this summer for recovery processing testing at the Saskatchewan Research Council's separation pilot plant and REE processing facility in Saskatoon, SK.
The Province of Saskatchewan's recent growth plan includes an aggressive two-year target for a commercially viable REE production demonstration plant. Over the next two years, SRC intends to spend about C$35 million to build two pilot plants, one for extracting lithium from various brines and the other for extracting and then separating rare earth elements from ore, including uranium tailings.
SRC scientists are studying more efficient and sustainable ways to produce and refine "strategic metals" such as REE and lithium.
James Sykes, vice president, exploration and development at Appia Energy, said Alces Lake has naturally high concentrations of heavy REEs, such as dysprosium and terbium, required for defense as well as high-tech applications, such as magnets required for the electric vehicle industry, wind turbines and other electronic applications.
He said many technical features of the Alces Lake REE deposit are comparable to mineralization in the Mount Weld REE mine in Australia, which currently accounts for more than 10 percent of global rare earth oxides production and is the world's largest REE producer outside of China.
The Alces Lake project, however, does not have demonstrated quantified mineral resources, nor does it have a prefeasibility study demonstrating economic and technical viability for developing a commercially mineable project.