Editor’s Note: Just hours ago, the story came across the wire. If the story is verified, it represents a major policy change for the US government. Moreover, it presents U.S. Department of Defense and industry with serious and vexing issues. We make this remark because, notwithstanding America’s desire for independence from China, the country literally controls the world supply of rare earth elements.
Ucore Rare Metals Inc.
5:02 a.m. Alaska, Story First Published in North of 60 Mining News
Ucore Rare Metals Inc. Aug. 14 said the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 signed into law by President Donald Trump is a turning point for the rare earth element sector in the United States.
The new legislation, more commonly known as the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, prohibits the U.S. Department of Defense from acquiring rare earth magnets – along with certain tungsten, tantalum and molybdenum products – from China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea.
“This is a turning point in the re-establishment of an independent US rare earth industry,” said Ucore President and CEO Jim McKenzie. “It is also an important inflection point for rare earth investors. Rare earth magnets, or REMs, represent a technology of critical importance to the American military.”
Comprising 15 lanthanides on the periodic table, plus yttrium and scandium, rare earths possess unique properties that make them essential to a wide gamut of high-tech, green-power generation and military devices.
Ucore Advisory Board Member Dean Popps, who previously served as the U.S. Army’s senior procurement officer, said the US$717 billion defense bill signed by President Trump on Aug. 13 encourages the development and retention of critical technologies in the United States’ defense and industrial base. Section 873 of the bill, which prohibits the imports of REE magnets and other metals from China, also provides a strong statement of support for developing producers of strategic minerals in the United States.
“Further risk to the nation’s strategic supply chain’s dependency on China has been reduced by the new law, which prohibits the Department of Defense’s purchase of Chinese-made magnets used in an array of military applications, from aviation and weapons systems, to supercomputers and satellites,” said Popps. “This event is also an important signal to the defense industry, and its attendant defense establishment procurement officials and policymakers, to begin proactively reviewing all supply chains consistent with the intent of the new law.”
Military REEs from SMC?
One place U.S. defense officials may be able to look for a potential domestic source of rare earths is the Strategic Metals Complex, or SMC, that Ucore proposes to build near Ketchikan, Alaska.
“Ucore’s planned Strategic Metals Complex, as a U.S.-based producer of high purity REEs, comes at a time when the U.S. military will be actively pursuing these materials,” said McKenzie.
SMC is being designed to extract individual rare earths from non-Chinese feedstocks, including from conventional REE sources in the U.S., such as Ucore’s Bokan Mountain project, and non-traditional sources such as by-products from coal operations.
This facility will utilize molecular recognition technology, an innovative process developed by Utah-based IBC Advanced Technologies.
The basic idea behind this process, known as MRT, is that resins are engineered to grab ions based on various traits such as size, chemistry and geometry. Loaded into columns, these resins latch onto the targeted material suspended in a solution that is pumped through the column. Simply rinsing the resin with a mildly acidic solution releases a nearly pure version of the material the resin is engineered to bind to.
MRT is more cost effective and environmentally sound than traditional extraction methods that use various chemicals to break apart rare earths, which are notorious for being tightly bound to each other.
With a pilot plant known as SuperLig-One, Ucore and IBC demonstrated that MRT is capable of separating the notoriously interlocked REEs into individual rare earths with a purity greater than 99 percent. One of the remarkable aspects is that around 99 percent of the rare earths that were in the solution plant were recovered.
“Dysprosium, for example, has been separated from Bokan PLS in a pilot plant operation at the 99.99 percent level with 99 percent recovery,” said IBC President and CEO Steven Izatt.
This means that essentially all of dysprosium – commonly used in permanent rare earth magnets used in military applications, green energy power generation and electric vehicle motors – fed into SuperLig One came out the other end as a virtually pure product.
With MRT proven with the pilot plant, Ucore is now looking to scale the technology up to a commercial operation with the construction of SMC.
The company is currently carrying out due diligence for this facility, which includes identifying the ideal location near Ketchikan, Alaska to build SMC; finalizing engineering designs for the REE separation plant; determining the costs to build and operate the facility; and selecting feedstock from a short-list of competing alternatives.
“The decision to embark on the engineering design is a significant milestone for Ucore and Alaska; as together we accelerate to becoming a technology-based producer of individual, saleable REE oxides in the worldwide market,” McKenzie said in March.
Ucore envisions ramping up production of the SMC over a roughly four-year span. The first phase of the facility, slated for completion in 2020 or 2021, would have the capacity to process 1,000 metric tons of rare earth concentrates per year. The second phase would increase throughput to 2,500 tpy and by 2024 the company plans to have the facility processing 5,000 tpy of REE concentrate.
In addition to providing a domestic supply of rare earths from its own facility in Alaska, Ucore has indicated that it may be able to work a deal with the Pentagon to license MRT technology to the U.S. Military.
“The company is also uniquely equipped to step in and serve as a key source for rare metals resources, extraction and beneficiation technologies for the Department of Defense,” McKenzie said.
Editor’s Note: In addition to the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, the Trump Administration has imposed tariffs on rare earth elements imported from China; and the President signed an executive order that calls for the Secretary of Defense and other administration leaders to investigate the defense industrial base and supply chains. More information can be found in the article, REE tariff puts wind in Alaska SMC sails, published in the June 20 edition of North of 60 Mining News.