It might be closer than you think, says the Canadian Rare Earth Elements Network
by Greg Klein
Now here’s an ambitious goal—for Canada to supply 20% of the world’s critical REEs by 2018. That’s the target set by the Canadian Rare Earth Elements Network, at the impetus of exploration companies among its membership. While CREEN chairperson Ian London concedes the plan might not be fulfilled so soon, he emphasizes that Canada has about a third of the non-Chinese world’s advanced rare earths projects, more than a third of the world’s known critical rare earths resources and a greater degree of rare earths expertise than many people realize.
The 2018 target was set a year ago, based on the fact that Canada has nine rare earths projects that have reached at least a preliminary economic assessment. “But if financing doesn’t happen, the projects aren’t going to proceed per the schedule,” London tells ResourceClips.com. Even so, the nine projects comprise “one-third of the best REE opportunities in the world,” he maintains.
And, despite the near cut-throat competition of junior explorers, at least some of the companies holding those projects actually co-operate with each other. That was another ambitious CREEN goal, but one that’s already been achieved.
CREEN describes its membership as “mining companies, academia, government, research centres, consulting firms and other organizations that are working together to develop innovative solutions to the various challenges faced by this sector.”
“We had a technical workshop about a month ago where I convened a meeting of about 35 technical leaders from the prospective producers and consulting engineering firms,” London says. “When the technical leaders and their consultants, many of whom have worked on several projects, got talking, by the end of the day they identified about 21 areas on which they shared some common issues and short-listed five prospective research projects.”
No CEOs were present. “When you get engineers talking, without any sort of corporate protocol, they actually speak the same language. CREEN has a technical advisory committee and we structured it so you roll up your sleeves and examine some hypotheses. Then you find engineers and scientists like solving problems.”
A former president/CEO of Ontario Hydro International, London holds a degree in metallurgical engineering as well as an MBA. He’s also worked with several new technology and alternative energy companies.
“I’ve been in this sector for eight years and I’m amazed at the number of individuals working on rare earths-related process technologies or applications at different universities that nobody knows about. There’s a scientist here, or an engineer there, who’s working on a PhD and is moving forward. But there was no forum for them to get together.”
Rare earths expertise in Canada and elsewhere in the West is further ahead than commonly perceived, London argues. “But it’s disjointed. There are experts at different Canadian universities who I’m not sure have ever spoken to each other because they have different areas of specialization. One would be on beneficiation, one would be on hydrometallurgy, one would be on separation. By establishing CREEN, we gave them a platform so they could get together and we now have a common goal.”
Actual mining should inspire even greater interest, he says. “If you get into production, you now have a playground for academics. It’s nice to do studies, but they want something to work on.”
Rare earths processing is “more chemistry than it is metallurgy or traditional processing,” London adds. “But we have a lot of smart guys who are comfortable with metallurgy and chemistry.”
One CREEN member, the Saskatchewan Research Council, operates a Saskatoon pilot plant that it calls “one of the few centres in Canada with an emphasis on rare earth minerals.” SRC chief geoscientist Bryan Schreiner tells ResourceClips.com, “There are other labs across the country that can do rare earths work too, but we’re emphasizing that as a major component for our pilot plant.”
The facility is intended to develop new and improved methods for processing a surprising array of minerals including potash, uranium, gold, base metals, coal, oilsands and oil shale. “We built this very modular so we can reconfigure the components of the equipment and develop a different process plant depending on what the mineral is,” Schreiner explains. “In particular we have a continuous flotation machine that’s ideally suited for rare earths separation.”
London says Canada also benefits from “tremendous relationships around the world.” In 2012 Canada’s Metallurgy and Materials Society asked London to organize one of the world’s first international symposiums on rare earths processing. It received 44 papers from nine countries. “Last year we had 53 papers from 17 countries—10 from China,” he points out. “They’ve been published in a book. If you keep it at a technical level, people will talk. The rare metals sector tends to be market-driven—what your shares are worth, how much money you can raise. But we’re at the stage now where there are Indians working with the Chinese, with Canadians and Americans.”
This year’s symposium takes place at COM14 in Vancouver from September 28 to October 1.
As for China, it not only holds much of the world’s expertise but it’s often estimated to provide about 90% of global supply—or even 95% according to evidence heard by a Canadian parliamentary committee. Mining analyst Luisa Moreno attributes about 36% of the world’s resources to China, but they’re diminishing. Recent reports from that country, meanwhile, show no easing of export restrictions.
The two Western sources, Molycorp’s (NYE:MCP) Mountain Pass mine in California and Lynas’ Mount Weld in Australia, “are both struggling,” London says. “More importantly, they’re primarily light rare earths. We have a unique advantage in the amount of critical rare earths we have.”
“The world wants alternative sources of supply. What they’re also looking for is the brains to go along with it. The Chinese created hundreds of thousands of jobs around the industry because the world buys their products, their technology.”
But he sees a limit to vertical integration at home. “Canada’s not fooling itself into thinking we’re going to be a magnet-maker to the world. We can provide separated rare earths and further downstream processed metals, and let others focus their attention on refining it into magnetic alloys, or magnets or phosphors, and together we can have supply chains.”
Over the next three years CREEN’s near-term goal is to support opportunities to place Canada as a key rare earths producer. Looking three to 10 years ahead, the organization wants to encourage further technological development, downstream processing, new applications and highly qualified personnel.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s clearly an opportunity,” London says.