Making rare earths separation less rare
Critical Minerals Alliances 2022 - September 12, 2022
Last updated 9/12/2022 at 5:36am
US invests heavily into developing domestic rare earth element processing plants
Despite what their name suggests, rare earths are not all that scarce. An efficient and environmentally sound technology capable of separating this tightly bonded group into the 15 individual elements of innovation, however, is truly unique and the key to establishing a rare earths supply chain in North America.
There are currently no commercial-scale rare earths separation facilities in North America and only two such facilities outside of China – one in Malaysia and the other in Estonia – though other such plants outside of Asia are under development.
In North America, the need to establish this fundamental link between rare earths enriched deposits and the downstream electric vehicle, renewable energy, high-tech, and other sectors demanding ever-increasing quantities of these critical elements is not lost on governments or industry.
The United States government alone is investing hundreds of millions of dollars into establishing this vital middle link of the rare earths supply chain.
At the same time, global automakers, mining companies, recycling firms, and others in the private sector are racing to develop enough rare earths separation and processing capacity to meet the enormous demand for this group of elements, especially the magnet rare earths needed for EV motors, wind turbine generators, computer hard drives, hi-fidelity speakers, and a wide array of other products.
This effort to decentralize the REE supply chain away from China, however, has gained the attention of a cybernetwork that pushes online narratives in support of the People's Republic of China's political interests.
Known as Dragonbridge, this group has launched a campaign targeting companies advancing rare earths mining and processing projects in the United States and Canada.
"Dragonbridge's targeting of the rare earths industry ... demonstrates an interest in industries of strategic importance to the PRC that we had not previously observed from the campaign," Mandiant, a cybersecurity firm that has been tracking Dragonbridge's pro PRC campaigns for three years, inked in a June blog.
Pentagon funds Texas plant
The primary target of the Dragonbridge rare earths campaign was Lynas Rare Earths Ltd., which secured $150 million in Pentagon funding to establish a rare earths processing facility in Texas that will ensure the military and industrial sectors in the U.S. have a secure supply of rare earths.
In June, the U.S. Department of Defense agreed to invest $120 million to fund a heavy rare earths separation facility to be owned and operated by Lynas USA LLC, a subsidiary of Australia-based Lynas. This facility is to be built alongside a $60 million light rare earths separation facility that is being co-funded by the Pentagon and Lynas.
"The U.S. Government's selection of Lynas for this strategic contract reflects our proven track record in rare earths production," said Lynas Rare Earths CEO and Managing Director Amanda Lacaze.
Owner of the Mt. Weld rare earths mine in Western Australia and an REE separation facility in Malaysia, Lynas was the first company in decades to commercially mine and process rare earths outside of China.
The two contracts with the Pentagon provide the company with US$150 million to fund a facility in the U.S. with the capacity to produce the entire suite of rare earths.
The distinction between light and heavy rare earths is primarily a function of the atomic weight of each element.
Most rare earth deposits contain some mixture of the 15 lanthanides, a group of elements in their own row near the bottom of the periodic table, plus yttrium and scandium, which are also often considered REEs.
Light rare earths make up the first eight elements of the lanthanide series. This subset includes lanthanum, for which the series gets its name; cerium, used for polishing high-quality optical surfaces; praseodymium, valued for its magnetic and optical properties; and neodymium, the main rare earth used in the neodymium-iron-boron magnets used in EV motors and wind turbine generators.
The remaining seven lanthanides are considered heavy rare earths, which are less abundant in most deposits and tend to be more valuable. This subgroup includes europium, used primarily in red and blue phosphors in televisions and computer monitors; terbium, used in high-temperature magnets and to create a green phosphor; and dysprosium, which improves the durability of magnets in EV motors and wind turbine generators.
China's dominance in mining and especially the separation of rare earths is the reason former President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden authorized the Pentagon to use Defense Production Act Title III funding to support the development of a domestic supply chain of these suite elements critical to national defense and homeland security.
In 2021, DoD agreed to invest up to US$30 million of DPA Title III funding to help build a light rare earths separation facility to be developed and equally co-funded by Lynas.
Under the latest DPA Title III contract with Lynas, DoD will fully fund a heavy rare earths separation capacity to be developed alongside the light REE facility.
"The DoD's decision to fully fund the construction of the heavy rare earths facility demonstrates the priority that the U.S. government is placing on ensuring that supply chains for these critical materials are resilient and environmentally responsible, and as importantly, their confidence in Lynas' ability to execute, including access to quality feedstock and processing expertise," said Lacaze.
It also put Lynas and DOD in the crosshairs of Dragonbridge.
With thousands of fake Twitter and Facebook accounts, Dragonbridge operatives posed as concerned Texas residents protesting the construction of Lynas' proposed rare earths processing plant and criticizing the Biden administration's decision to support the facility.
The Pentagon launched an investigation into Dragonbridge disinformation campaign and said it "remains committed to working with industry, the interagency, and partner nations to promote resilient, environmentally sustainable, and transparent supply chains for critical minerals and materials, both domestically and around the globe."
This includes continued support of Lynas' plans to develop a rare earths separation plant within an existing industrial area on the Texas Gulf Coast.
Feedstock for this facility is expected to initially be mixed rare earths carbonate produced from material mined from Mt. Weld.
Lynas anticipates the Pentagon-funded heavy rare earths facility in Texas will be operational by mid-2025.
DoD funding for MP
Not putting its eggs all in one basket, the Pentagon also awarded MP Materials Corp. a $45 million contract to commercially separate rare earth elements at its Mountain Pass Mine in California's Mojave Desert.
Mountain Pass is currently the only mine in the United States that produces rare earths. Due to the lack of separation capacity elsewhere, MP ships mixed rare earth concentrates produced at the California mine to China to be separated into their individual elements.
Similar to its deal with Lynas, Department of Defense first committed $9.6 million to restore Mountain Pass' ability to separate and purify light rare earths and then awarded a $35 million contract to commercially separate and refine heavy REEs.
"The ability to mine, process, and refine rare earths at Mountain Pass is foundational to a national effort to secure the U.S. rare earth supply chain," said MP Materials Chairman and CEO James Litinsky. "We thank the Department of Defense for its confidence and support."
This ability to mine and refine the entire suite of rare earths comes at a time when the rapid rise of EV manufacturing is creating massive new demand for powerful REE magnets.
To ensure that it has a reliable supply of the materials needed to build the electric mobility it envisions, General Motors recently cut a deal to buy REE materials and magnets to be produced at a new facility that MP Materials is building in Fort Worth, Texas.
DOE puts up $140 million
As the Pentagon backs Lynas' Texas REE separation plant, the U.S. Department of Energy is investing nearly as heavily into the development of a facility capable of extracting rare earths and other critical minerals from unconventional sources such as coal ash and acid mine drainage, and then refining them into the individual metals.
"Applying next-generation technology to convert legacy fossil fuel waste into a domestic source of critical minerals needed to strengthen our supply chains is a win-win – delivering a healthier environment and driving us forward to our clean energy goals," said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm.
The $1 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law included $140 million to support this altruistic objective.
"With the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law's investment in the build out of this first-of-its-kind critical minerals refinery, we are moving ideas from the lab to the commercial stage and demonstrating how America can compete for the global supply chain to meet the growing demand for clean energy technology," the energy secretary added.
To put the best ideas and technologies into this critical demonstration refinery, DOE has gathered input from industry, investors, developers, academia, research laboratories, government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and communities that potentially could be affected by the development of the critical minerals plant.
While DOE encourages outside-of-the-box thinking when it comes to unconventional sources of critical minerals, it does not want to stray too far from convention when it comes to the technologies that will be used to extract and refine these technology metals.
The energy department envisions that this first-generation separation facility will use proven methods such as hydrometallurgy and solvent extraction for the separation of individual rare earth and critical mineral oxides, as well as the subsequent refining and alloying of metals.
REE separation upgrade
Fundamentally, RapidSX is a 21st-century upgrade to the conventional solvent extraction technology that has been the standard for separating rare earths in China for more than 40 years.
Traditional solvent extraction involves running a mixed rare earths product through vats of various solvents that progressively separate the notoriously interlocked rare earths into individual elements – a long process that requires dozens of steps and a relatively large environmental footprint.
Utilizing an innovative column-based platform developed by IMC, RapidSX is much faster and more environmentally sound than the mixer-settler units used for traditional SX separation.
Ucore intends to install this technology at its Alaska Strategic Metals Complex, a processing plant it plans in Ketchikan, a port town in Southeast Alaska. This facility, slated for completion in 2024, would provide a domestic supply of rare earths.
AG Hydrometallurgy Services Inc., which was hired by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority to carry out an independent technical review of commercializing RapidSX, found this tech has the ability to separate the entire suite of rare earths around three times more efficiently than traditional solvent extraction.
"After completing our extensive technical review of the RapidSX technology, its commercialization development process and its planned installation in the Alaska SMC, it is my opinion that Ucore can credibly and effectively execute its unique business strategy," said AG Hydrometallurgy Services President and CEO Ahmad Ghahreman, a hydrometallurgical expert that has advised the Canadian government on rare earths mining and separation.
Compared to conventional solvent extraction with the same capacity, a RapidSX separation facility would cost around half to build and approximately 20% less to operate.
Ucore has already lined up supplies of mixed rare earths in need of being separated into individual elements of innovation.
This includes an agreement to process mixed rare earth carbonates derived from Vital Metals Ltd.'s Nechalacho Mine in Northwest Territories, the only REE operation in Canada.
High-grade ore mined at Nechalacho is upgraded to a concentrate with x-ray transmission (XRT) sorting technology and then shipped to Saskatchewan, where it is being refined into a mixed rare earths carbonate.
A portion of this mixed REE product is tentatively slated for future shipments to the Alaska SMC.
"This agreement is an important and exciting entrance into the North American downstream rare earth supply chain," said Vital Metals Managing Director Geoff Atkins. "We are particularly excited that ... Ucore represents the most advanced new rare earth separation company entering into the North American market."
Rare Earth USA supply chain
USA Rare Earth LLC, which is developing a domestic mine-to-magnets rare earths supply chain, was another target of Dragonbridge's rare earths disinformation campaign on social media.
The first link of the USA Rare Earth supply chain is the Round Top critical minerals mine project in Texas.
Being advanced toward production under a joint venture between USA Rare Earth (80%) and Texas Mineral Resources Corp. (20%), the Round Top project southeast of El Paso hosts an enormous deposit of rare earths, lithium, and six other minerals critical to the economic wellbeing and security of the U.S.
"USA Rare Earth is developing a fully domestic mine-to-magnet supply chain, while the lithium at Round Top will also support the manufacture of battery electric vehicles," said USA Rare Earth President Thayer Smith. "Our project is a geologically unique and diverse deposit that will help bolster U.S. critical minerals production."
A 2019 economic and engineering study for Round Top outlines plans for a mine that would produce 2,212 metric tons of rare earths per year, including healthy supplies of the six rare earth elements used in permanent magnets.
At the rate of mining considered in this economic assessment, Round Top hosts enough rare earth and critical mineral resources to operate for more than a century.
The Texas mine site will also host a facility that employs continuous ion exchange technology to separate the tightly interlocked rare earths into individual elements.
The final link of the USA Rare Earth supply chain will be a facility in Oklahoma that will produce rare earth magnets.
In June, the company announced that it purchased a 309,0000-square-foot building in Stillwater, an Oklahoma city that boasts a growing high-tech economy, to house its rare earth elements processing and magnets plant.
Having already purchased neodymium-iron-boron permanent magnet manufacturing equipment that Hitachi Metals America briefly used at a facility in North Carolina about a decade ago, USA Rare Earth already has all the major pieces needed to begin producing rare earth magnets in Oklahoma.
Advancing projects that could help break China's decades-long monopoly of rare earths mining, separation, and magnet making drew the attention of Dragonbridge, which launched a social media disinformation campaign against the Oklahoma facility.
Mandiant says the attack on USA Rare Earth, Lynas, and others advancing REE projects in North America underscores Dragonbridge's "ability to monitor developments and respond accordingly, as well as its investment in attempting to ensure the PRC's market dominance in the industry."
Pini Althaus, founder and advisor at USA Rare Earth, says he is not surprised by a China-sponsored campaign to sabotage and spy upon companies at the forefront of developing the burgeoning rare earths supply chain in North America.
"Sadly, it is a given," he posted on LinkedIn.