March/April 2015

Rare earth elements

Global rare metal value chains in need of global links

By Ian London

The European rare earth element (REE) supply chain is currently incomplete and seeking solutions. There are no producing REE mines in Europe today, and China controls a majority of the REE market. However, there is hope. An economic development model similar to the one China has achieved in recent years is replicable and should be considered in Europe, along with its trade partners and allies in Canada.

In China, every stage of the value chain has been built upon its raw natural resources, acquired or self-developed process technologies and the availability of local expertise coordinated through contracts, cross investment and national strategy. Some countries (like Canada) possess solid resources and strong mining and mineral processing skills, while others could provide expertise and infrastructure in downstream chemical and metal processing. Others still could supply end-use applications further down the chain. However, these prospective partnering countries must be aware that the window of opportunity to plan, enable and execute is narrowing.

The European Rare Earth Competency Network ­(ERECON) presented policy recommendations to the European Commission at a workshop attended by more than 150 international experts in Milan last October. These recommendations, as outlined in the report, are comprised in a multi-pronged approach to improve the security of Europe’s supply of REEs: funding research on mining, separation, recycling and substitution; maintaining and strengthening the European skill and knowledge base through research funding, science and technology education, and international co-operation; funding research technologies for heavy REE pilot plants for EU projects and recycling projects; establishing a critical material fund to invest in upstream projects; and creating a European Resource Alliance.

The ERECON report noted that complacency is not an option. Although current prices are low, this does not reflect the insecurity of long-term REE supply in volatile markets, which remain dependent on a small number of sources of supply vulnerable to government intervention. This view echoed the thoughts of Canadian, American, Australian, Japanese, and other international specialists attending the workshop.

Europe currently has no REE mines in operation, but it did produce REEs in the past as a byproduct of other mining operations. The geological and economic potential to mine REEs in Europe was not comprehensively assessed before the global REE price spike in 2011. The EU-funded EURARE, an organization charged with developing the European REE industry, expects to complete an in-depth assessment of exploitable resources with a report due by December 2016.

REE separation capacities exist in both France and Estonia, with rare earth concentrate feed for these facilities coming from elsewhere. Europe also has metal processing and application capabilities with companies like the U.K.’s Less Common Metals, France’s Solvay/Rhodia and Austria’s Treibacher.

So how and where can Canada contribute to fleshing out a new and complete globally competitive REE supply from a European perspective?

At the moment, there are a couple of advancing rare earth projects in Europe, including Tasman Metals’ Norra Kärr project that is currently in the prefeasibility stage. However, REE projects take from 10 to 20 years to reach production and face a number of challenges such as project economics – especially if a feasibility study has yet to begin – as well as environmental matters, radioactivity management and permitting. Obtaining a social licence to operate is another fundamentally important dimension of any project, and the EU has very high standards in this area. Therefore, it could be a number of years before Europe can start supplying its own REEs.

Canada, which possesses more advanced projects, rich REE deposits, extensive mining and mineral processing expertise, high environmental standards, and a positive reputation and track record of collaboration, can supply the downstream chemical and metal producers. Canada can be the critical first step in the international partnering strategy, with other countries and companies contributing according to their comparative advantages along the full REE supply chain. This would enable an alternative and more secure REE production to manifest in a much more cost- and time-effective manner.

This of course does not mean that any one country or company would be limited in their respective stages of REE production, but rather they would take the lead in such, and assume a different level of participation and cross-investment in each stage.

The REE supply chain is inter-dependent. The outputs of one stage are the inputs to the next, and this is how we create reliable and cost-efficient solutions. To be successful, both technical and business output-input specifications and interfaces will need to be co-ordinated and maybe even tweaked for the overall effectiveness of the full chain. We, as partners, allies and global industry players, speak of international trade and co-operation; we should put them to work.

Ian London
Ian London is the chairman of the Canadian Rare Earth Elements Network and was instrumental in its formation in mid-2013. He is also a 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.

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