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Utah uranium mill produces rare earths

Metal Tech News - June 10, 2024

Energy Fuels begins commercial neodymium-praseodymium production at White Mesa Mill; has sights set on world-class expansions.

On the path to toward establishing its White Mesa Mill as a world-class hub for at least six of the metals critical to the energy transition, Energy Fuels Inc. is now producing commercial quantities of neodymium-praseodymium (NdPr), a pair of rare earths widely used in electric vehicle motors at the uranium production facility in southeastern Utah.

"We have achieved a significant milestone for the Energy Fuels, for Utah, and for the United States: the commercial production of separated rare earths that meet applicable product specifications, while simultaneously ramping up domestic uranium production aggressively," said Energy Fuels President and CEO Mark Chalmers.

When separating the suite of 14 rare earths into individual elements needed for a wide range of high-tech and industrial applications, neodymium and praseodymium are often left bound together to be used as the base ingredient in powerful rare earth permanent magnets. Energy Fuels says the NdPr now being produced at White Mesa Mill meets the specifications of metal-makers that specialize in manufacturing rare earth-based alloys for the permanent magnets going into battery-electric and hybrid EV motors.

The company expects to have "on-spec" NdPr produced at its up to 1,000-metric-ton-per-year phase-one rare earth elements (REE) separation circuit at White Mesa Mill ready for shipment by the end of the month.

NdPr, a combination of the rare earths neodymium and praseodymium, is the primary rare earth product for the powerful magnets widely used in electric vehicle motors and direct-drive wind turbines.

The success of its initial phase of rare earths separation, which is ahead of schedule and under budget, gives the company the confidence it will be able to scale up its NdPr output by sixfold, while also producing the scarcer and more valuable rare earths dysprosium and terbium during the coming phase-two and phase-three REE separation expansions at White Mesa Mill.

"Due to the overwhelming success of Energy Fuels' Phase 1 REE separation project, Energy Fuels can now continue to advance its rare earth initiatives with an extremely high degree of confidence," said Chalmers.

All the while, Energy Fuels will continue to bolster its position as a leading producer of the energy transition metals for which it is best known – uranium and vanadium.

Bringing REE separation home

Energy Fuels first set in motion a strategy to become a significant domestic producer of rare earths in 2021, when it arranged to process a rare earth mineral known as monazite shipped from U.S.-based Chemours Company's heavy mineral sand operations in Florida and Georgia.

Monazite is a mineral often recovered as a byproduct from processing heavy minerals sands. The monazite concentrates being shipped from Chemours East Coast operations contain roughly 50% rare earths and 0.2% uranium. While the uranium grades are low in comparison to the rare earths, they are comparable to ore being mined from deposits on the Colorado Plateau covering the Four Corners region of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Unlocking the individual rare earths from the monazite is a complex process that first involves producing a carbonate with a mix of rare earths and then secondary processes to separate the notoriously interlocked rare earths into individual elements that can be used by the high-tech and other sectors.

Energy Fuels has been ramping up to the commercial separation of rare earths contained in the monazite shipped from Chemours since it began pilot-scale testing in 2021.

This work has culminated in reaching commercial phase-one production at the rare earth separation plant without the complications that typically come with commissioning new processes and equipment. As a result of the smooth startup, the total costs of the phase-one rare earth separation plant at White Mesa mill came in at around $16 million, which is significantly lower than originally estimated.

The company expects to produce 25 to 35 metric tons of on-spec NdPr, along with uranium and a heavy rare earth concentrate, from the monazite it has in stock.

"I wish to congratulate the entire team at the White Mesa Mill for bringing commercial rare earth separation capabilities and expertise back to the United States, and for achieving this major accomplishment ahead of schedule and under budget," said Chalmers. "With this announcement, Energy Fuels can confirm the return of separated rare earth production from monazite back to the United States after a multi-decade absence, in addition to the return of technological know-how and expertise in this extremely important field that is critical to national and economic security."

Scaling to world-class

With NdPr piling up for the first shipment from White Mesa Mill, Energy Fuels is looking ahead to scaling up production of rare earths, uranium, and vanadium at the southwestern Utah facility.

On the rare earths front, the company plans to establish a standalone rare earth separation plant at the mill capable of producing 4,000 to 6,000 metric tons of NdPr per year during phase-two, along with 150 to 225 metric tons of dysprosium, and 50 to 75 metric tons of terbium during phase-three.

Dysprosium and terbium are used to increase the heat resistance and durability of rare earth magnets.

While the quantities of dysprosium and terbium are a fraction of the NdPr to be produced at White Mesa Mill, these heavy rare earths are much scarcer and more valuable. While NdPr currently sells for around $93 per kilogram, the price for dysprosium and terbium are $430/kg and $1,500/kg, respectively.

In addition to their scarcity, the reason these heavy rare earths fetch such high prices is they are vital to increasing the heat resistance and durability of high-strength permanent magnets used in the most efficient EVs, direct-drive wind energy, military and defense technologies, and other clean energy applications.

The heavy rare earth concentrates recovered during phase-one separation will be used to continue pilot-scale dysprosium and terbium separation and to design phase-three solvent extraction circuits capable of producing these heavy rare earths to metal making specifications.

To support its plans to become a globally significant producer of rare earths, Energy Fuels acquired interest in several heavy metal sands projects that will provide monazite to process at White Mesa Mill, including full ownership of the Bahia heavy metal sands project in Brazil during 2023. This along with the Donald joint venture project in Australia and the pending acquisition of Base Resources and the Toliara Project in Madagascar, has the potential to make Energy Fuels one of the largest separated rare earth producers in the world.

"While our recently commissioned phase-one separation circuit is globally significant and would rank the company as one of the leading producers of separated REEs in the world outside of China, our planned phase-two and phase-three separation circuits would truly be world-class," said Chalmers.

Following completion of initial NdPr production at White Mesa Mill around midyear, Energy Fuels plans to begin processing uranium ore and alternate feed materials from our current stockpiles, resulting in the expected production of 150,000 to 500,000 pounds of uranium oxide (U3O8) during 2024, with yellowcake production expected to climb further in 2025.

High-purity vanadium, which is used in specialty alloys and redox flow batteries for grid-scale renewable energy storage, is also produced at White Mesa Mill.

U.S. Department of Energy

Energy Fuels expects to produce 150,000 to 500,000 pounds of yellowcake at White Mesa Mill this year.

Author Bio

Shane Lasley, Metal Tech News

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With more than 16 years of covering mining, Shane is renowned for his insights and and in-depth analysis of mining, mineral exploration and technology metals.


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