While the US and its allies continues to trail China in the crucial rare earth element (REE) sector, things are beginning to happen on this front.
According to a report in Mining Technology, the US Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded US$19 million to fund the development of 13 projects to produce REEs and critical minerals essential in the manufacture of batteries and magnets.
REEs are used as critical components across several industries, ranging from electric vehicles to smartphones. They are vital for satellites, missile guidance systems, missile defence systems and more.
The new funding is expected to help the US accelerate its rare earth elements production as it aims to reduce its dependence on China due to strained trade relations, the report said.
China produces around 70% of the world’s REEs.
US Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm said: “By building clean energy products here at home, we’re securing the supply chain for the innovative solutions needed to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 — all while creating good-paying jobs in all parts of America.”
Among the entities selected to receive the DOE funding to develop their respective projects include Pennsylvania State University, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Collaborative Composite Solutions, and New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology.
The DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) will manage the selected projects, the report said.
Under the Biden administration, the effort is receiving renewed focus, with massive investments planned in climate change technology and a hard line being taken on geopolitical rivalries and the national security threat posed by China, CNBC reported.
President Biden’s sweeping $2 trillion infrastructure legislation seeks to remake the power and transportation markets in the U.S. and rebuild the country’s semiconductor industry.
It follows Biden signing an executive order in February designed to review gaps in the domestic supply chains for rare earths, medical devices, chips and other key resources, and in March the DOE announcing a $30 million initiative that will tap into researching and securing the US domestic supply chain for rare earths and other important minerals in battery-making such as cobalt and lithium.
In other developments, a Canadian firm is pioneering a new method of mining REEs, without destroying the local environment, APTN News reported.
Nechalacho Rare Earths Mine, located around 100 kilometers east of Yellowknife on Thor Lake is gearing up to enter production this spring.
According to Cheetah Resources Corp., operators of the demonstration project and owners of deposits near the surface, Nechalacho will be the first Canadian producer of REEs and the first project in the country where an Indigenous group is contracted for extracting minerals in its own territory.
David Connelly, vice president of corporate affairs and strategy for Cheetah Resources Corp., told media the demonstration phase of the project is considered small with about 30 seasonal jobs this summer.
“We expect the physical footprint will be less than 10 per cent less than the average diamond mine. While we have a number of firsts, we want to make it clear Nechalacho will in no way replace the contribution of the diamond mines in the N.W.T.’s economy,” Connelly said.
Officials say 600,000 tonnes of ore-bearing rock is expected to be extracted this summer, with 100,000 containing the valuable minerals. About CDN$20 million has been spent on the mine’s development.
But the biggest benefit, according to workers and locals — no toxic tailings ponds.
While smaller in scale, Clarence Pyke, Nechalacho mine project manager said the secret is in the sorting.
In fact, there are no chemicals, it’s actuated by air, Pyke said.
A sensor-based ore sorter does all the sorting in a single step — using X-rays and puffs of air to sort the ore into streams of waste rock and a rare earth concentrate.
According to Pyke, it “recognizes the product that we need and the product that we don’t need and it’s going to separate it through the belt feed.”
Free from chemicals means the cleanup for phase one of the mine will only involve waste rock.
The product will travel by barge to Hay River over the summer.
After that, it will head to Saskatoon to be handled by the Saskatchewan Research Council and Cheetah Resources will refine the material before it is shipped to Norway for fine separation of rare earth elements and sale.
“We can build a project while respecting the land and water and creating meaningful employment and substantial contracting opportunities,” Connelly said.
“We’re also demonstrating to the global customer base outside China that the NWT and Cheetah’s mixed rare earth precipitated products can meet their stringent product specifications and not upset their individual processes.”
REEtech, a company in Norway, said Connelly, has already pre-purchased the majority of mixed rare earth precipitate that’ll come from the demonstration project and has expressed interest in buying five times that amount, five years from now.
The site has a long history of being explored, with uranium sought there during the uranium boom of the 1970s, according to Chris Pedersen, Cheetah Resources’ senior project geologist. At that time, rare earth minerals were not as highly coveted as they are today.
“It turns out that Nechalacho is actually a very special place not only because of the great people that work here, but also because of the geology itself,” Pedersen said, noting the small, half-grapefruit shaped deposit.
Sources: Mining Technology, APTN News, CBC News, NNSL.com, CNBC