US-Europe rare earth supply chain launched
First US derived REE carbonates shipped from Utah to Estonia Metal Tech News – July 14, 2021
Last updated 7/20/2021 at 3:31pm
A container of mixed rare earth carbonate shipped from Energy Fuels Inc.'s White Mesa Mill in Utah to Neo Performance Materials Inc.'s Silmet rare earths separation facility in Estonia marks the start of what is shaping up to be major new rare earths supply chains in the United States and Europe.
"Today, Energy Fuels and Neo took significant steps toward restoring critical U.S. and European rare earth supply chains," Energy Fuels President and CEO Mark Chalmers said as the first 20 metric tons of mixed rare earths product was being loaded into the container bound for Europe.
The supply chains being established by Energy Fuels and Neo are in the southeastern U.S. state of Georgia, where Chemours Company produces titanium and zirconium from heavy mineral sands and upgrades that pair of critical metals into a broad range of products. These sands also contain monazite, a mineral that is rich in the suite of 17 rare earth elements.
According to Energy Fuels, monazite from southeast U.S. typically contains roughly 55% total rare earth oxides. Approximately 22% of these rare earths are neodymium and praseodymium, two of the most sought-after REEs due to being key ingredients in the high-strength permanent magnets essential to the lightweight and powerful motors in electric vehicles, wind turbines, and an array of other modern technologies.
Unlocking the individual rare earths from the monazite, however, is a complex process that first involves producing a carbonate with a mix of all the rare earths and then a second process to separate the notoriously interlocked rare earths into individual elements that can be used by the high-tech and other sectors.
Monazites, however, typically contain uranium, which is where Energy Fuels and its White Mesa Mill come into play.
"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," Neo Performance Materials CEO Constantine Karayannopoulos said earlier this year. "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."
Now, the first rare earth carbonate produced from this monazite is on its way to Canada-based Neo's Silmet processing plant in Estonia, currently the only operational rare earths separation plant in Europe.
Neo will use this new supply of rare earths carbonates to expand and diversify the rare earth products offered to a European market demanding increasing quantities of these technology elements for its rapidly expanding EV and renewable energy sectors.
"The launch of this new supply chain is a real gamechanger for Neo and our growing customer base in Europe," said Karayannopoulos. "This innovative U.S.-to-Europe supply chain will supplement Neo's existing rare earth supply from our long-time Russian supplier. It will enable Neo to expand value-added rare earth production in Estonia to meet growing demand in Europe for these materials."
While the first rare earths carbonates produced at White Mesa are bound for Europe, the success of the three-company collaboration to produce rare earths from monazite mined in America opens the door for a complete REE supply chain in the U.S.
"Successfully producing this rare earth product, and physically delivering the first containers of rare earth carbonate to Neo, is an important achievement, not only for Energy Fuels and Neo, but also for U.S. government efforts to restore critical rare earth supply chains," said Chalmers.
Looking at feeding rare earths into both the European and U.S. supply chains, Energy Fuels is in discussions to secure additional supplies of monazite to be upgraded to rare earth carbonates at White Mesa. Ultimately, the company would like to process at least 15,000 tons of monazite per year at the Utah facility. This volume would produce enough rare earths to meet roughly half of current U.S. demand while only utilizing 2% of the throughput and less than 1% of tailings storage capacity at the White Mesa mill.
Energy Fuels is also evaluating the potential to develop its own ability to separate REEs, which would add to the uranium and vanadium already produced at White Mesa.
As a first step toward this vision of establishing a complete U.S. rare earths supply chain, Energy Fuels has hired France-based Carester SAS, a global expert in rare earth separation and supply chains, to produce a scoping study that will evaluate the capital and operating costs for a full rare earth separations capability at the White Mesa mill.
The company is also looking into the potential of adding metals, alloys, and rare earth permanent magnets manufacturing capabilities to the expanded White Mesa operations.
In the meantime, the first rare earths carbonates shipped from Utah to Estonia establishes a rare earths supply chain that leverages a byproduct of mining two other minerals critical to the U.S.
"It begins to unlock the extraordinary economic and environmental potential presented by utilizing low-cost rare earth feedstock from monazite ore that is a byproduct of existing mining," said Karayannopoulos.