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The Saskatchewan Research Council plans commercial rare earths separation in 2022

by Greg Klein | August 28, 2020

Saskatchewan to offer commercial rare earths separation in 2022

This nondescript building will host a $31-million commercial REE facility in two years.
(Image: Saskatchewan Research Council)

 

Given China’s near-monopoly of these critical elements, the news from Saskatchewan is enormous—a commercial-scale rare earths separation facility up and running in two years. But the development is hardly sudden. The operator already boasts longstanding experience and world-leading expertise with the almost arcane endeavour. Moreover the August 27 announcement just confirms one of the ambitious mining-related goals in the province’s growth plan released last November.

Work begins this fall in Saskatoon on a $31-million processing and separating plant funded by the province. Canada’s only such facility, it constitutes a major step towards expanding REE supply chains independent of China. Operating the Saskatoon plant will be the Saskatchewan Research Council, a Crown corporation with 75 years of experience in mining-related research and technology, over 290 staff, $91 million in annual revenue and about 1,500 clients in 27 countries.

Saskatchewan to offer commercial rare earths separation in 2022

SRC assets include the world’s largest potash, uranium and diamonds labs, and its research extends to the oil and gas sector as well as to environmental studies.

The SRC has already been separating rare earths at the bench and pilot scale level. Its REE team currently employs 10 full-time-equivalent positions. The plan calls for staffing to reach 24 highly qualified FTEs in the facility, along with at least 10 more in R&D.

“SRC is a leader in the development of REE extraction and processing technologies and has worked closely with individual mining companies in Saskatchewan, Canada and globally on the concentration of REE ore for over a decade now,” points out president/CEO Mike Crabtree. “We employ world-leading experts on REEs who literally wrote the book on REE processing.”

That book—Separation Hydrometallurgy of Rare Earth Elements—was written by Jack Zhang, Baodong Zhao and Bryan Schreiner, SRC scientists of international stature.

The SRC anticipates ore or crushed sand will arrive by truck or rail from producers in Canada and the U.S., as well as potential overseas clients. Location of the tailings facility has yet to be determined.

One obvious caveat, however, is the current lack of North American primary producers. The sole exception is California’s Mountain Pass mining and processing operation. Although operator MP Materials has professed its commitment to an American supply chain, the company has been exporting its entire output to China.

Saskatchewan to offer commercial rare earths separation in 2022

New separation capabilities bring considerable advantages
to rare earths projects in Canada and elsewhere.
(Photo: Saskatchewan Research Council)

Demonstrating a non-Chinese commitment, however, is Australia’s Lynas Corp. The company operates a refining and separation facility in Malaysia to process rare earths ore from its Mount Weld mine in Western Australia. Lynas plans to open a WA cracking and leaching plant by 2023 to quell Malaysian concerns about low-level radioactive material shipped to the country. In the U.S., meanwhile, the company and its American JV partner Blue Line signed a contract last month with the Department of Defense, which would fund studies for a proposed American plant to separate heavy rare earths from Mount Weld.

But the SRC plant opens doors for potential North American sources, which last year totalled measured and indicated resources of 2.7 million tons in the U.S. and over 15 million tons in Canada, according to U.S. Geological Survey data.

Fitting for the world’s second-largest uranium-producing jurisdiction, Saskatchewan will process rare earths from uranium raffinate as well as from bastnasite and monazite, the most common mineralogical sources of rare earths.

But the Chinese challenge remains formidable. Chinese domestic mining accounted for nearly 63% of last year’s global production, a drop from 70% in 2018 but a number that doesn’t include Chinese control over foreign sources. Moreover the country’s dominance of separation facilities and expertise extends its control to an estimated 70% to 95% of various points along the supply chain.

SRC is a leader in the development of REE extraction and processing technologies and has worked closely with individual mining companies in Saskatchewan, Canada and globally on the concentration of REE ore for over a decade now. We employ world-leading experts on REEs who literally wrote the book on REE processing.—Mike Crabtree,
president/CEO,
Saskatchewan Research Council

Trade and other geopolitical tensions have brought fears—backed by implied threats—that the country will “weaponize” its rare earths dominance, repeating the 2010 machinations that staggered non-Chinese manufacturing industries.

The elements are vital to clean energy, electronics, transportation, defence, medical equipment and other necessities. American concern about rare earths and other critical minerals has triggered a number of initiatives including the Joint Action Plan on Critical Minerals Collaboration with Canada announced in January and reaffirmed in June.

But encouraging as the Saskatchewan initiative is, it hardly constitutes a slingshot to the Chinese Goliath. That country’s advantages include seemingly bottomless government subsidies, free use of black market or conflict material, and the backing of a savvy totalitarian government, according to Clint Cox. Speaking in Vancouver last January, the analyst and rare earths specialist with The Anchor House warned that Chinese dominance can’t be underestimated.

Nevertheless, the Saskatoon facility can only encourage junior mining activity. “The juniors are definitely the place where the last crop of potential mines came from, and it looks like they might be the next out there,” Cox told his January audience. “There’s some out there today.”

Among other goals, the Saskatchewan Growth Plan calls for studies into extracting lithium from the province’s brines as well as from oil and gas wastewater. The plan also considers adding nuclear energy to the province’s electrical mix from small modular reactors. Earlier this month Alberta joined Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick in a memorandum of understanding to co-operate on SMR studies.

Read more about the Saskatchewan Research Council.


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