USA rare earth separation pilot underway
Colorado facility is fulcrum of vision for domestic REE sector Metal Tech News Weekly Edition – June 17, 2020
Last updated 6/27/2020 at 6:27am
With the commissioning of a pilot plant in Colorado now underway, USA Rare Earth LLC is one step closer to producing rare earth elements on American soil.
Based in New York City, USA Rare Earth has set in motion a strategy to establish a completely domestic supply chain for rare earth magnets, which are essential for wind turbines, electric vehicles, smartphones, military hardware, advanced medical devices, and the physical backbone of emerging 5G networks.
A key facet of this mines-to-magnets strategy is to develop a facility to separate the 17 notoriously interlocked rare earths into the individual elements that are needed by the high-tech, renewable energy, defense, and other sectors of the U.S. economy.
Aside from a Malaysian plant operated by Australia-based Lynas Corp., all commercial rare earth separation facilities are currently located in China.
With permits now in hand, the commissioning of the Colorado rare earths and critical minerals processing facility is the fulcrum of USA Rare Earth's strategy to establish a domestic source of rare earths and break America's dependence on China and other countries for these critical minerals.
"Establishing an independent domestic rare earth and critical minerals supply chain is monumental for USA Rare Earth and for the United States, overcoming reliance on China for materials and processing that are essential for defense applications and advanced technology manufacturing," said USA Rare Earth CEO Pini Althaus.
Round Top, an enormous rare earth and critical minerals deposit about 85 miles southeast of El Paso, Texas, lies at the frontend of USA Rare Earth's envisioned mines-to-metals supply chain.
The New York-based company's partner in this endeavor, Texas Mineral Resources Corp. has spent years advancing this critical deposit to the stage of being considered for mine development.
A preliminary economic assessment completed last year, outlined plans for a mine at Round Top that would have the capacity to produce 2,212 metric tons of rare earths per year. This includes more than 200 metric tons of dysprosium, 180 tons of neodymium, 67 tons of praseodymium, 65 tons of gadolinium, 65 tons of samarium and 23 tons of terbium once the mine reaches full production. All six of these REEs are used to make the powerful magnets that go into high-tech, renewable energy, and military devises.
In addition to rare earths, the mine outlined in the PEA would produce about 10,000 metric tons of the lithium per year, which would help fill the expanding electric vehicle battery market. Round Top also hosts half a dozen other minerals and metals considered critical to the U.S. – aluminum, beryllium, gallium, hafnium, uranium and zirconium.
According to current calculations, the Round Top deposit is large enough to supply REEs, lithium and other critical minerals at this rate for more than a century.
The Colorado pilot facility at the fulcrum of USA Rare Earth and Texas Minerals' mines-to-magnets strategy is utilizing continuous ion exchange (CIX) and continuous ion chromatography (CIC) technologies to pull out the rare earths and other critical elements from a solution produced through the leaching of mineralized material derived from Round Top.
Once fully commissioned, the initial phase of pilot plant testing will focus on separating the rare earths into three categories: heavy REEs, such as dysprosium and terbium; middle; and light REEs, which include neodymium and praseodymium.
After this initial division of rare earths into these categories, the pilot work will focus on further separation of high-purity individual REE compounds.
The ability to recover these co-product critical minerals will support elevating the measured and indicated resources at Round Top to proven and probable reserves without the need for additional drilling. These reserves would come with the completion of a preliminary feasibility study that details the economic and engineering parameters of developing a mine at Round Top.
Bench-scale lab testing of the CIX and CIC REE process being piloted in Colorado has already been proven effective in separating rare earths and other critical minerals from a solution derived at Round Top. Now the pilot plant, which has the capacity to process several thousand liters of critical minerals-rich solution per day, will advance this processing technology closer to commercial levels.
"Our Colorado pilot plant will have the ability to produce the full range of high purity, separated rare earths, as well as other critical minerals such as lithium," said Althaus.
Further details on the pilot plant separation processes can be read at Texas JV moves quickly on REE separation https://www.miningnewsnorth.com/story/2019/12/20/news/texas-jv-moves-quickly-on-ree-separation/6106.html in North of 60 Mining News.
At the magnet end of the envisioned American rare earths supply chain, USA Rare Earth has acquired state-of-the-art neodymium-iron-boron permanent magnet manufacturing equipment previously operated in the U.S. by Hitachi Metals America Ltd.
When combined with its partnership in Texas Mineral's Round Top project and the separation plant being piloted in Colorado, this facility provides the New York-based company with a foothold along the entire REE mines-to-magnets supply chain.
A domestic supply of these critical minerals and REE magnets is expected to reinvigorate advanced technology manufacturing in the U.S. for companies currently dependent on foreign sources for supply. This onshoring of high-tech and other manufacturing has the potential to spur massive job and economic growth in the U.S.
The lynchpin to this potential, however, is the ability to separate rare earths on American soil. The successful permitting and current commissioning of USA Rare Earth and Texas Mineral's pilot plant in Colorado is a significant milestone along the path of realizing this potential.
"Together with our recently acquired rare earth magnet manufacturing platform, Round Top and our pilot plant constitute essential links in restoring a mine-to-magnet domestic U.S. rare earth supply chain without the material ever leaving the United States, thereby alleviating the current dependence on China for both raw materials and mineral processing," said Althaus.
Find out more about the importance of rare earth separation and China's near monopoly of this segment of the REE supply chain in The enigmatic rare earth elements paradox in the Feb. 12 edition of Metal Tech News.