A rare earth supply chain master link
Metal Tech News - September 23, 2022
Last updated 4/16/2023 at 7:03am
Summit spotlights Saskatoon as an emerging rare earths hub in North America
Saskatoon, a small city in the heart of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, is emerging as the master link in a North American rare earth supply chain with connections in Canada, Australia, Europe, and the United States.
This city of just over 300,000 people on the Canadian Prairies is not gaining notoriety as a major North American rare earth hub due to rich deposits of this suite of 15 enigmatic elements essential to modern technologies. Instead, Saskatoon is leveraging its advantageous locale and the brain power of the Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC) to establish the most complex and essential link along the supply chain – transforming ore and other mixed rare earths products into the individual elements essential to modern technologies.
The rare earths that will be processed and separated in this Saskatchewan city are needed for clean energy technologies like electric vehicles and wind turbines; modern electronics such as smartphones and computers; MRIs and other medical devices; and thousands of other household, commercial, and military applications.
In recent years, the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Australia have been seeking to diversify rare earth supply chains away from China, which currently accounts for roughly 80% of the global production of this group of critical elements.
More than 200 leaders representing every link of the global rare earth supply chain convened in Saskatoon on Sept. 20 to attend the Rare Earth Summit, an event that shined a spotlight on Saskatchewan's leadership in helping to build a rare earths supply chain in North America.
"Showcasing Saskatchewan as the continental hub for value-added rare-earth products sends a message – that Canada can provide global markets with the essential building blocks for a low-carbon future," said Perrin Beatty, president and CEO of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, one of three organizations that hosted the summit.
The other two event organizers, SRC and Cheetah Resources Corp., the Canadian subsidiary of Australia-based Vital Metals Ltd., are establishing side-by-side rare earths processing facilities in Saskatoon.
"The world is watching us," said David Connelly, vice president of strategy and corporate affairs for Cheetah and Vital.
Canada's first REE mine
The world has had its eye on Cheetah since the 2021 start of rare earths production at its Nechalacho Mine in Northwest Territories, the only operation in Canada to feed rare earth ore into the supply chain.
"We are Canada's first rare earths miner and producer," Connelly said.
The high-grade rare earth ore that comes to the surface at Nechalacho allowed Cheetah to quickly establish a mine there with a very small environmental footprint.
Nahanni Construction, a Northwest Territories-based dirt moving company majority-owned by the Yellowknives Dene First Nation contracted to do the mining at Nechalacho, stockpiled enough of this near-surface, high-grade ore in 2021 to last until at least next year.
The ore dug up by Nahanni is being fed through a TOMRA X-ray transmission (XRT) sorter, which can upgrade the already high-grade ore at Nechalacho to a concentrate that runs above 30% rare earth oxides by simply identifying and separating the rocks with rare earths in them.
Without the need for a complex processing facility or tailings storage, the Nechalacho Mine is something akin to a gravel quarry – simply mine and crush near-surface rock and sort out the best material with little or no water and zero chemicals.
While the production of rare earths concentrates at the Nechalacho Mine is simple, the processing and separation of these tightly interlocked elements are more complex. This next link along the rare earths supply chain is where Saskatoon and the processing facilities being developed there by Vital and SRC come into play.
Forging REE master link
Saskatchewan began forging a rare earths supply chain master link – the processing and separation of these technology elements – with an initial C$31 million (US$24 million) investment for the minerals processing team at the Saskatchewan Research Council to build the first facility in North America capable of upgrading rare earths-enriched monazite sand into a mixed REE product and then separate the contained rare earths into individual REE oxides.
Monazite sands, such as those SRC sourced from Brazil to be processed through its Saskatoon plant, are typically enriched with light rare earths such as cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, and praseodymium.
Neodymium and praseodymium are particularly prized rare earths due to their use in the powerful rare earth magnets that go into EV motors, wind turbine generators, computer hard drives, speakers and headphones, medical imaging equipment, and a wide array of other industrial and household goods.
The province has since expanded the plans for this facility to include the production of rare earth metals, adding another link to the supply chain. In June of this year, the government announced that it is investing an additional C$20 million (US$15.5 million) toward the achievement of this expanded capacity at the Saskatoon facility.
In August, Saskatchewan Minister Jeremy Harrison was presented with the first rare earth ingots ever poured in Canada.
"I am extremely pleased that SRC is not only meeting, but exceeding, the Saskatchewan Growth Plan goal of being the first North American processing facility to deliver individual, high purity REEs and now magnet metals," Harrison, the minister responsible for SRC, said.
Vital REE processing plant
Working alongside SRC, Vital Metals is scaling up production of its own facility in Saskatoon to extract the rare earths from the ore being mined by Cheetah at Nechalacho.
The rare earth concentrates produced at Nechalacho are bagged up and shipped via a barge across the Great Slave Lake and then by rail to Vital's emerging Saskatoon extraction plant.
"Our teams at the Nechalacho rare earth project in the Northwest Territories, and here at Vital Metals' Rare Earth Extraction Facility in Saskatoon, are the cornerstones of an independent mine-to-motor supply chain," Connelly said.
For Vital, Saskatoon is the ideal location to establish its second link in a rare earths supply chain.
In addition to being a well-connected North American city that offers a natural link between Nechalacho to the north and a world that needs the rare earths being mined there, Saskatoon boasts a skilled labor force, quality education facilities, the mineral processing acumen offered by SRC, and is in a Canadian province that understands the value of rare earths processing and is supporting efforts to establish this vital link in the REE supply chain.
"Building a rare earth hub and the much-needed supply chains required to meet net zero goals in Canada and around the world will need to be a collaborative effort – one that is being showcased through this Summit," Harrison said, demonstrating Saskatchewan's understanding and commitment to working with Vital and others.
In July, Vital announced that the first Nechalacho concentrates were being fed into a newly installed dense media separation plant at the Saskatoon extraction facility.
During the commissioning phase, which will continue over the coming months, Vital plans to produce a 2.5-metric-ton mixed rare earth carbonate sample that is ready for the third link in the rare earths supply chain – separation.
Rare earth separation links
The mixed rare earth carbonates produced in Saskatchewan are to be shipped to REEtec, a Norway-based company that has developed an efficient and environmentally sound REE separation technology, for this final stage of processing.
Under an offtake agreement with REEtec, Vital will deliver roughly 500 metric tons of total rare earth oxides to the Norway separation plant by October of next year. This carbonate is expected to contain 187.5 metric tons of neodymium-praseodymium.
Following this initial delivery, Vital will provide REEtec with 2,000 metric tons of rare earth carbonates containing at least 750 metric tons of neodymium-praseodymium annually over five years.
Adding another link to the rare earths supply chain that begins at the Nechalacho Mine in Canada's Northwest Territories, Germany-based auto parts manufacturer Schaeffler Group has entered into a contract with REEtec to purchase the rare earths needed for the burgeoning EV industry in Europe.
In addition to its agreement with REEtec, Vital has entered into a preliminary agreement to supply Ucore Rare Metals Inc. with rare earths carbonate to be processed at that company's Strategic Metals Complex to be built in Alaska – establishing an all North American rare earths supply chain with links in Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan, and Canada.
"Vital Metals is the first rare earth producer in Canada and Ucore is racing to construct the first modern rare earth processing plant in the United States," said Ucore Rare Metals COO Mike Schrider. "The combination of our efforts clearly work together towards the collective goal of establishing an ex-China rare earth supply chain to ensure that Western world manufacturers have access to North American produced and sourced rare earth oxides."
To be developed near the Southeast Alaska port town of Ketchikan, Ucore's Alaska SMC rare earths separation facility is slated for completion in 2024.
The Rare Earth Summit not only showcased Saskatoon as the master link in an emerging North American supply chain with links that extend to Australia, Europe, India, and South America, but also spotlights Canada as a storehouse of the minerals critical to a high-tech and clean energy future.
"Canada has the potential to be a world leader in supplying the critical minerals market," said Beatty. "Critical minerals are essential in the production of consumer goods, industrial applications as well as green infrastructure vital to the transition to a low carbon economy."
The processing facilities being built by SRC and Vital offer a blueprint for Canada to leverage its enormous mineral wealth to become a powerhouse with links further down the critical minerals supply chains.
"Showcasing Saskatchewan as the continental hub for value-added rare-earth products sends a message – that Canada can provide global markets with the essential building blocks for a low-carbon future," the Chamber of Commerce CEO added. "Projects like this will enable us to move beyond mining and capture the mid and downstream processing and manufacturing value chains."
Now in the spotlight, Saskatoon could strengthen its position as a master link in North America's rare earth supply chain through the addition of facilities that separate rare earths into their individual elements and then upgrade them into the magnets and other products needed for the clean energy and high-tech future.