September 2014

Rare Earth Elements

A Canadian industry in the making

By Ian M. London

The critical rare earth elements (REEs), as deemed by several international experts, are neodymium, dysprosium, europium, terbium and yttrium. Many of today’s clean technologies, hybrid vehicles, energy-efficient motors, lighting systems, advanced communications, and medical diagnosis and treatment technologies call for rare earths in their material specifications. As REEs become increasingly important with the growth of the clean technologies industry, so too does Canada’s potential for becoming a significant player in the global REE supply.

Thus, identifying and championing pre-competitive R&D projects and technical solutions that would enable Canadian producers to deliver 20 per cent of the global supply of separated critical REEs by 2018 is the ultimate goal of the Canadian Rare Earth Elements Network (CREEN). CREEN is an industry-led multi-stakeholder network comprised of prospective REE producers, academics, commercial and national labs, engineering experts, entrepreneurs, end-user product manufacturers and governments.

In the short term (one to two years), CREEN members are focused on applying Canada’s extensive mineral processing, hydrometallurgy and chemical process engineering know-how and experience to find unique solutions to the complex chemistries of REE production processing. In the medium to longer term (two to 10 years), CREEN will improve process solutions and develop strategic and fundamental technology for further downstream processing, towards finished products including metals, alloys and phosphors.

Until now, the Chinese have dominated the REE sector. In an effort to carve their own niche in the sector, Canadian project developers, with the support of labs and engineering consultants, are hard at work to design, pilot and optimize hydrometallurgical and separation processes that will bring REE projects into production. To date, industry players have invested around $200 million to develop nine advanced REE projects in Canada, which are among the top 28 advanced projects globally as reported by Technology Metals Research. Among the nine projects are those championed by CREEN members Avalon Rare Metals, Quest Rare Minerals, Pele Mountain, and Commerce Resources. These Canadian developers are seeking solutions to optimize their revenues and reduce their capital and operating costs.

It has become clear that cooperation is important for development in the Canadian REE sector. Following a series of workshops hosted by Natural Resources Canada in 2012 and 2013, industry players saw the merit of sharing the technical challenges they face in developing REE projects and collaborating with experts.

Industry players convened at the inaugural REE Symposium at the 2012 Conference of Metallurgists (COM 12), organized by CIM’s Metallurgy and Materials Society (MetSoc), to build on individual R&D and laboratory pilot plant testing conducted by individual project developers, in addition to work being done by academics across Canada. The event presented 44 peer-edited papers from nine countries. At the second symposium at COM 13 in Montreal, the number of papers grew to 53 from 17 countries including eight from China. This reinforced the premise that technical exchanges and partnerships between Canada and other national and international organizations such as the United States, European Union, Germany, United Kingdom, and South Korea are fast emerging. The REE Symposium program at COM 14 in Vancouver this fall (Sept. 28 – Oct. 1) will continue to build on Canada’s reputation and knowledge.

CREEN held its first technical workshop in Ottawa in mid-June to “roll up one’s sleeves.” The event was attended by technical leaders from among the network’s membership, and organizers invited academic and engineering experts to prioritize issues, solution studies and testing programs including specific sponsorship. Twenty-one projects were identified, which were later shortlisted to a half dozen in the areas of REE separation, reagent production and environmental management. The workshop participants fleshed out the specific issues and possible work that needs to be done, along with preliminary schedules and budgets. As I write this, CREEN’s Technical Sub-Committee is further refining the project definitions as well as securing project sponsors and R&D funding.

Ian London
Ian London is the chairman of CREEN and was instrumental
in its formation in mid-2013. He is also market development and
energy advisor with Avalon Rare Metals Inc. Over his 40-year career,
he has served as president and CEO of Ontario Hydro International,
CEO of Process Products Ltd., and on the boards of several technology
and alternative energy companies. Ian chaired the Rare Earth Symposium
at COM 12 and COM 13.

Global demand for clean and new technologies and REE materials that enable them are growing at very significant rates. CREEN and the initiative of its network members will contribute to technical and economic solutions that can reduce the capital and operating costs of producing necessary REEs and ensure Canada’s speed to market.

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