Ucore unveils Alaska2023 rare earths plan
Company plans to produce REEs at Alaska SMC in three years Metal Tech News – October 7, 2020
Last updated 10/20/2020 at 5:09pm
Seeking to alleviate the United States' heavy reliance on China for its supply of the rare earth elements needed for a broad range of high-tech applications, Ucore Rare Metals Inc. has rolled out a strategy to begin producing REEs in Alaska in three years.
Dubbed Alaska2023, this business plan aims to build the Alaska Strategic Metals Complex, a commercial-scale RapidSX rare earths separation and purification plant in Southeast Alaska, by 2023. This processing facility is the first step in the company's ultimate goal of establishing a mine at Bokan Mountain, a rare earth and critical minerals project about 30 miles away from the SMC.
"Ucore's business plan is focused entirely on near-term US REE independence, by establishing downstream REE manufacturing and production capacity to cost-effectively transform US-allied-sourced REE feedstocks into 100% made-in-USA finished REE oxides," said Ucore Rare Metals CEO Pat Ryan.
Rare earths are a group of 17 elements – 15 lanthanide elements that occupy their own row near the bottom of the periodic table, plus yttrium and scandium – that are used in a wide array of modern technologies, including renewable energy, electric vehicles, computers, and smartphones.
"Many experts have recognized that REEs have quietly become an essential and non-substitutable component of nearly every new technology of the 21st century," Ryan penned in a letter introducing Alaska2023. "Transportation, defense, green energy, and health-care sectors are now heavily reliant upon REEs. Compounding this is the swift global transition to renewable energy solutions."
The U.S. currently relies on foreign countries for 100% of its supply of rare earths. And more than 80% of these critical metals are imported from China, either directly or via secondary countries.
President Donald Trump addressed this heavy dependence on China for rare earths in a Sept. 30 executive order that addresses "the threat to the domestic supply chain from reliance on critical minerals from foreign adversaries."
"In the 1980s, the United States produced more of these elements than any other country in the world, but China used aggressive economic practices to strategically flood the global market for rare earth elements and displace its competitors," according to the executive order signed by Trump. "Since gaining this advantage, China has exploited its position in the rare earth elements market by coercing industries that rely on these elements to locate their facilities, intellectual property, and technology in China."
Considering America's heavy reliance on foreign countries for rare earths and other critical minerals a vulnerability that endangers the nations' economic wellbeing and security, Trump declared "a national emergency to deal with that threat" in his critical minerals executive order.
"This executive order potentially creates a path for increased production of REEs in the U.S. and an end to U.S. military reliance on Chinese supply chains," said Ucore Rare Metals COO Michael Schrider. "Ucore believes that this executive order could potentially support the mine development of Bokan Mountain, in addition to our ongoing RapidSX REE technology development work for the commercial-scale separation of both heavy REEs and light REEs on U.S. soil."
Further details on President Trumps critical minerals executive order can be read at Trump declares critical mineral emergency published by Metal Tech News on Oct. 1.
Understanding that finding an economically viable and environmentally sustainable means of separating rare earths was the key to reestablishing a rare earths supply chain in the U.S., Ucore has been working with experts in this field for several years.
This search led Ucore to Innovation Metals Inc., a private Canada-based company led by Gareth Hatch, an expert in both rare earths and metallurgy.
Rare earths are notoriously difficult to separate. Solvent extraction, which involves the use of various chemicals to first break apart the rare earths into group and then into individual elements, has long been the preferred method of REE separation. With its inexpensive labor and lax environmental standards, China has dominated the business of rare earth processing.
Innovation's RapidSX takes the time-tested solvent extraction technique to a new level by utilizing an innovative column-based platform that is much faster and environmentally sustainable than its predecessor.
Innovation says RapidSX reduces the number of process steps required in each extraction circuit by up to 85 to 90%, a simplicity that also significantly reduces the footprint of a facility needed to separate rare earths.
With the goal of incorporating this proprietary technology into its Alaska Strategic Metals Complex, as well as offering RapidSX to others via licensing agreements, Ucore acquired Innovation earlier this year.
"A cost-competitive, commercial-scale, environmentally sound separation technology is the lynchpin of the current REE supply chain focus in the western world," said Ryan. "The RapidSX development program that Dr. Hatch and his team have implemented to advance RapidSX towards a commercial platform has enabled Ucore to credibly advance our near-term REE production initiatives in a way that was previously not possible."
Bokan rare earths
Ucore's interest in rare earth separation technology is the outgrowth of a search for an economically and environmentally acceptable means of processing concentrates from a future mine at Bokan Mountain.
According to a calculation completed in 2019, the Dotson Ridge deposit at Bokan hosts 4.79 million metric tons of indicated resource averaging 0.6% (31,722 metric tons) rare earth oxides, 460 parts per million (2,205 metric tons) niobium; 1,880 ppm (9,001 metric tons) zirconium; 48 ppm (231 metric tons) beryllium; 37 ppm (178 metric tons) hafnium; 0.37% (17,715 metric tons) titanium dioxide; and 97 ppm (464 metric tons) vanadium.
In addition, Dotson Ridge hosts 1.05 metric tons of inferred resource averaging 470 ppm (493 metric tons) niobium; 1,897 ppm (1,992 metric tons) zirconium; 46 ppm (48 metric tons) beryllium; 35 ppm (37 metric tons) hafnium; 0.44% (4,652 metric tons) titanium dioxide; 112 ppm (118 metric tons) vanadium; and 0.6% (6,979 metric tons) total rare earth oxides.
Though the overall grade of the rare earths found at Bokan is not particularly high, roughly 40% of the REEs fall in the heavy category, which tend to be in higher demand and more expensive. When you add in the other metals, all of which are deemed critical, this project shows the potential to be a vital U.S. source of critical minerals.
While delivering these Bokan Mountain rare earths and critical minerals into the American supply is Ucore's ultimate objective, the more immediate goal is to get the Alaska SMC producing REEs from feedstock for other U.S. and allied sources.
Ucore said finalizing a feasibility study and beginning the permitting process for Bokan is part of its longer-term "bigger and bolder" rare earths objectives.
Ucore's more immediate goal, however, is to begin producing rare earths at the planned Alaska SMC by the end of 2023.
"The ALASKA2023 timelines are aggressive and necessary to ensure US participation in a variety of emerging high-tech industries such as information technology, communication and electric vehicles," said Ryan.
The company estimates it will cost roughly US$35 million to build the Alaska SMC. Earlier this year, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) reaffirmed its interest in helping to fund the REE separation facility and eventual mine at Bokan Mountain.
The development finance arm of the state of Alaska, AIDEA has financed hundreds of projects around the state since being established in 1967 to advance economic growth in Alaska.
In 2014, the Alaska Legislature authorized AIDEA to invest up to US$145 million to help finance development of a mine at Bokan Mountain, which includes funding for the Alaska SMC at Ketchikan, a Southeast Alaska port town about 30 miles from the proposed rare earths mine.
During 2019, AIDEA reviewed Ucore's plans to develop the Alaska SMC and mine at Bokan Mountain. As a result of this evaluation, Alaska's powerful development finance arm continues to see the projects as a good investment.
One of the reasons for AIDEA's continued interest is the potential that its investments in Alaska SMC and Bokan could be leveraged by federal support for the project.
With this AIDEA financing being an integral part of the Alaksa2023 plan, Ucore said it will work to enhance its relationship with the development authority, as well as continuing its dialogue with Alaska's Congressional Delegation in pursuit of federal support for Alaska SMC and Bokan Mountain.
At the same time, the Ucore and Innovation Metals technical teams plan to complete the construction of a commercial scale light rare earths separation facility by the end of 2022 and the Alaska SMC, which will be able to separate both light and heavy REEs in 2023.
"We are confident of the value, advantages and timelines associated with our new three-year business plan and look forward to updating the market about our activities, initiatives, and progress in the near future," said Ryan. "Our energy, our passion and our capabilities have never been stronger - and I want all of our partners, stakeholders, and loyal shareholders to feel as excited about the future as we are at Ucore."