Ucore eyes new SX rare earth separation
Signs deal to test efficient technique developed by Innovation Metal Tech News Weekly Edition – February 19, 2020
Last updated 6/27/2020 at 5:19am
Ucore Rare Metals Inc. is now considering a quicker and more efficient method of solvent extraction (SX) as the rare earth separation technology of choice for the Strategic Metals Complex (SMC) it is planning to develop in Southeast Alaska.
This proprietary new technique for separating the tightly interlocked rare earth elements, aptly named RapidSX, was developed by Innovation Metals Corp., a private Canada-based company established to develop cost-effective processing solutions for many of the metals vital to today's high-tech society.
Under a technical service agreement between the two companies, Innovative Metals will carry out bench-scale testing on the separation of rare earths from concentrates produced from Ucore's Bokan Mountain project in Southeast Alaska, and potentially other mixed REE concentrate feedstock sources Ucore is considering for the Alaska SMC.
"The lack of U.S.-based operational REE separation capacity presents a serious vulnerability to U.S. national and economic security and the security of its allies, as REEs are critical for defense technologies, electric vehicles and U.S. economic growth plans. Without the downstream capacity to separate and purify REEs, the U.S.A. and its allies are vulnerable to potential supply disruptions, price spikes and trade disagreements related to REEs," said Gareth Hatch, co-founder, chairman and CEO of Innovative Metals. "It is our intention to remedy this situation with the successful commercialization of the RapidSX approach to processing and purifying REEs and IMC (Innovative Metals Corp.) is very pleased to work with Ucore in its efforts to establish commercial REE separation capabilities on U.S. soil."
Rapid solvent extraction
Most REE deposits contain some mixture of all the elements considered rare earths, which includes 15 lanthanides – the group of elements in their own row at the bottom of the periodic table –along with scandium and yttrium – a pair of elements that are commonly found in REE deposits and have similar characteristics.
These 17 rare earths have similar physical and chemical properties, which makes it difficult to separate them into the individual elements needed for a wide array of high-tech applications.
Solvent extraction, which involves the use of various extractants that are able to break apart the rare earths into group and then individual elements, has long been the preferred method of REE separation.
While this process has been the standard for rare earth separation over the past 40 years, it is complex, sometimes taking hundreds of stages of breaking down the REE bearing solution into rare earth groups and eventually into the oxides and salts that can be used in everything from high-fidelity headphones to F-35 fighters.
This is where Innovation Metals' RapidSX technology comes into play.
This new process takes the time-tested solvent extraction technique to a new level by utilizing an innovative column-based platform that significantly reduces the time and footprint of the facility needed to separate REES.
Innovation Metals says RapidSX "reduces the number of process steps required in each SX circuit by up to 85 to 90 percent." This process also significantly reduces the time it takes to go from 17 elements all locked up in a rare earth soup into individual oxides that are used in thousands of high-technology, renewable energy, electric vehicle and military application.
Developed with US$1.8 million in assistance from the U.S. Department of Defense's Army Research Laboratory, Innovation Metals' process also reduces the quantities of required organic reagents (extractants), power requirements for a REE separation facility and amount of inventory required to be loaded into the system at any one time.
The company has already separated REEs from non-Chinese concentrates into 99.5 to 99.97 percent total rare earths at its pilot facility in Ontario, Canada.
Based on the results of its pilot testing, RapidSX provides numerous advantages:
• A considerably reduced number of separation stages per solvent extraction circuit and corresponding smaller physical plant footprint, which would likely result in lower start-up capital expenditures (CAPEX). These expectations are contingent on the specific feedstock utilized and resulting REE products and purities desired.
• As a result of the significantly increased kinetics of the RapidSX technology, the time to achieve equilibrium and separation is accelerated from weeks to hours or days.
• The significantly reduced RapidSX separation times, reagent and power consumption, manpower requirements, and in-process metal inventories is expected to result in reduced operating costs, depending on the feedstock and resulting REE products.
• Due to its modular configuration and reduced number of stages, RapidSX is capable of readily reconfiguring for separating light rare earth-rich, heavy rare earth-rich or blended feedstocks.
• All equipment and chemical reagents needed for RapidSX REE separation plant are readily commercially available.
• The RapidSX technology's process lines are modular and scalable, providing the opportunity to scale commercial production capacity.
These advantages are in-line with Ucore's goals for its Alaska SMC.
"We are very excited to be working with IMC and its RapidSX technology and believe there is considerable merit in an evolution of the well-proven conventional SX process, with specific interest in the reduction of CAPEX and required plant footprint, as we simultaneously seek various funding opportunities for our planned Alaska SMC," said Ucore Rare Metals Chairman Pat Ryan.
More information on potential funding opportunities for development of the Alaska SMC can be found at Alaska REE project draws Pentagon interest in the Feb. 14 edition of Metal Tech News.