Collaborating to produce US rare earths
Three-way partnership builds US-European REE supply chain Metal Tech News – March 3, 2021
Last updated 3/9/2021 at 4:56pm
Already, the leading United States producer of the uranium that fuel's emissions-free nuclear energy, Energy Fuels Inc. has entered into an agreement with Canada-based Neo Performance Materials to produce rare earth products from natural monazite sands that are a byproduct of heavy mineral sands mined in the southeastern U.S.
Under an agreement announced on March 1, Colorado-based Energy Fuels will process these monazite sands into a mixed rare earth carbonate in Utah for use as feed material for Neo's rare earths production plant in Europe.
Energy Fuels is also continuing to evaluate the future development of value-added U.S rare earths production capabilities at its uranium operations in Utah.
Under the agreement, Energy Fuels plans to begin producing a rare earth carbonite from the monazite sands later this month and ship a portion of that production to Neo's Silmet processing facility in Estonia, the only operational rare earths separation facility in Europe. This Eastern Europe facility owned by Neo will then process this material into the rare earth needed for the high-power permanent magnets used in electric vehicles and other high-tech applications, as well as other REE products.
Because of increasing demand for value-added rare earth materials in European manufacturing, Toronto-based Neo seeks to expand and diversify its current supplies of rare earth feedstock at Silmet, which has been separating rare earths for more than 50 years.
Some of this increased and varied feedstock could come from Energy Fuels' White Mesa Mill, a facility in Utah that carries rare earths as byproduct to the uranium produced there.
In the meantime, Energy Fuels will produce its rare earth carbonates from 2,500 tons of monazite sand per year from U.S.-based Chemours Company's mineral sands plant in Georgia.
Typical southeast U.S. monazite sand ores like those being supplied by Chemours average about 55% total rare earth oxides and 0.20% uranium, which is the typical grade of uranium found in uranium mines that have historically fed the White Mesa Mill.
This means that, in addition to extracting the high concentrations of rare earths, the White Mesa Mill will also extract the naturally occurring uranium from the southeast U.S. monazite sands, which Energy Fuels will sell to power clean, carbon-free nuclear energy.
"Monazite is an excellent and rich source of rare earths, particularly the magnetic rare earths that are highly sought for new electrification applications. Yet, monazites derived from heavy mineral sands have historically not been favored due to the naturally occurring radioactive elements they normally contain," said Neo Performance Materials CEO Constantine Karayannopoulos. "Energy Fuels provides the missing link in solving this challenge. They extract valuable uranium from monazite and put it to good use while also recovering monazite's rare earth content."
What makes the sand provided by Chemours even more valuable is neodymium and praseodymium, rare earths used in the magnets in EV motors and wind energy turbines, make up about 22% of the total contained rare earths.
Upon completion of the current commercial-scale pilot program at White Mesa Mill, Neo's Silmet facility expects to purchase and process a minimum of 840 metric tons of rare earth oxides per year from the carbonates supplied by Energy Fuels, which represents roughly 80% of Energy Fuels expected production from Chemours' supply.
"Together, Energy Fuels, Neo and Chemours have successfully created an integrated rare earth supply chain based in the U.S. and Europe," said Energy Fuels President and CEO Mark Chalmers. "Monazite is coveted globally as one of the highest-value rare earth minerals in the world, due to its excellent distribution of neodymium and praseodymium, as well as 'heavy' rare earths. It is already mined here in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world. However, until now, there has been no integrated ability to process monazite in the U.S. or Europe into the rare earth materials needed to supply the rapidly increasing demand for electric vehicles, renewable energy systems, and other clean energy and advanced technologies."
Neo and Energy Fuels have been working in a technical collaboration for nearly a year to establish this new rare earth supply chain, which is expected to constitute the first time in over twenty years that monazite ore from the U.S. will be used as a feedstock to manufacture separated rare earth materials outside of China.
"Producing value-added rare earth materials from monazite resources is a massive step forward for our industry and for consumers of rare earths," said Karayannopoulos. "And, given the relatively significant monazite resources around the world, we expect this collaboration will help Neo expand our production of separated rare earth products in Europe and improve resiliency of European manufacturing. That is particularly timely given increasing demand for rare earth materials across the continent and given the EU's vehicle electrification initiatives, which will require greater supplies of rare earths."