The Pulse: Mud to rare earths; Kazakhstan’s nuclear plans; Uranium price hope

Pulse-Robin-BrombyIt’s sometimes called the Red Menace. It might actually be part of the answer to Japan’s quest to free itself of China’s grip on rare earths supplies. It might even change the state of play in the rare earths sector.

Colleagues here at ProEdgeWire have recently posted items about the plan to extract REE from Jamaica’s red mud – the waste product that is now left behind after bauxite has been turned into alumina. In all, the world produces 120 million tonnes a year of red mud, and most goes into large dams so that it can’t leak into the nearby environment.

Aluminium producer Nippon Light Metal Co says it is now just over two months away from starting up its ¥300 million ($3.2 million) pilot plant to extract REE from the Caribbean island’s bauxite. The Nikkei news service reports that, starting May, the Japanese company will monitor the facility’s yield and operating costs to determine whether its proprietary technology for reprocessing by-products from smelting bauxite into alumina works as planned. The agency says Jamaican bauxite contains a higher content of REE than bauxite from other producing regions. But – it must be stressed – it remains uncertain whether the project will prove to be economic, yet the company must be reasonably confident. The other issue – and something that will be monitored once the pilot plant is operating – is the impact on land, water and air surrounding the plant. There have already been some environmental objectors voicing opposition.

One of the main targets is dysprosium and Nippon Light Metal said it should know by 2013’s end whether the process works. If so, then it will build a full-scale plant to produced 1,500 tonnes a year of rare earths. According to the Jamaica Observer, the island’s bauxite has 2,500 times more REE content than another global deposit. It has not been possible to verify that independently, so that issue remains open to speculation.

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However, red mud is going to become an even more pressing issue with the output each year due to rise eventually three-fold as new alumina production comes into being. At present, only 5% of the world’s red mud is recycled.

If the Japanese experiment works, no doubt others will start to look at their own bauxite. It should be noted that this idea is not exactly new: as long ago as 1960 Alcan patented a process to extract thorium and rare earths from bauxite waste.

Jamaica is No. 5 in terms of bauxite reserves – about 2 billion tonnes. Guinea in West Africa has the largest resource (7.4 billion tonnes), followed by Australia (6 billion), Brazil (2.6 billion) and Vietnam(2.1 billion). China’s bauxite resource is 830 million tonnes.

In terms of alumina plants, China leads the way with 24. Of the countries with the largest bauxite resources, Australia has seven smelters, Brazil five and Jamaica four.

NUCLEAR POWER: While the future of Japan’s domestic nuclear industry is in doubt, not so with the country’s exports of the technology. Japan industry minister Toshimitsu Motegi announced an agreement with Kazakhstan to step up nuclear co-operation. Japanese companies will now work with Kazakhstan’s National Nuclear Centre on a feasibility study for nuclear power in the Central Asian nation. Kazakhstan is keen to build nuclear reactors to make use of its large uranium resources.

Meanwhile, The Nikkei Weekly newspaper reports it will take between 30 and 40 years to decommission the stricken Fukushima plant. Several areas inside the plant are still closed off, and work is now proceeding on finding a method that will allow technicians to assess the situation inside the plant.

URANIUM: Spot uranium prices continue to decline says the commodities team at Australia’s largest financial institution, the Commonwealth Bank. Spot uranium are so far this quarter averaging $43/lb, unchanged from the December quarter. (This week the mineral was exactly on that price, down 35c from last week.) The last time spot uranium prices were this low was in mid-2010. Fukushima nipped a recovery in the bud in March 2011.

But it sees two reasons for a possible price improvement. One, the prospect of several Japanese reactors being switched back on after the new safety standards are issued mid-year; two, the end of the Russian Highly Enriched Uranium agreement due to expire this year.


  1. When the junior exploration companies investigate a deposit, they do all kinds of sampling, and the results generally get to the public (e.g. thru ProEdge). So we get a good idea of the REE concentrations there.

    Did this company do a similar set of analyses for their ‘deposit’ of red mud? I assume they ran a pilot plant first.

    Also–saying that the red mud is going to be recycled is a bit of a misnomer. If the stuff is really rich in REEs, and they end up using, say, 5 to 10 percent of the mud , you still have a heckuvalotta mud on your hands. It isn’t going away.

    Maybe they could set up kilns and make bricks with it after they get the REEs out of it.

    • 1. Nippon has not released sampling details so far as I can find – not unusual for a Japanese industrial.
      2. No, the pilot plant starts in May. As I reported, they hope to have finished this phase by the end of the year.
      3. There are other elements that could possibly be recovered, including titanium dioxide. Also, the CSIRO – the Australian government scientific body, has published a paper titled “Bauxite residue (red mud) improves pasture growth on sandy soils in Western Australia”.

  2. Robin; can you please quantify what the above statement means ?
    “” According to the Jamaica Observer, the island’s bauxite has 2,500 times more REE content than another global deposit. It has not been possible to verify that independently,”" …(ie 2500 times more than what? …and what would this translate to in terms of actual raw Rare-Earths tonnes ? …and what would be the composition breakdown of LREE; HREE; CREE ?”") …now, that would be meaningfull information !
    - Also the 1960 “Alcan” patented process to extract thorium & rare-earths from bauxite waste? …I’m sure your readership would be interested to know more about what ever became of that patented process (ie successes? obstacles? failures?) ; as it would appear to not have recieved widespread endorsement!

    • 1. 2,500 times more than any other bauxite deposit. There is no doubt that the particular nature of the Jamaican bauxite makes it particularly suitable, but I find it hard to believe there is so great a disparity with every other deposit around the world.
      2. I don’t know about concentrations. This information, so far as I can understand, is not available. The pilot plant, starting in May, is obviously going to answer this question – and whether the REE can be extracted economically.
      3. As for Alcan, start at http://www.google.com/patents/US5030424

  3. I found a good summary report with chemical analyses of the major constituents of “Jamaican Red” mud as well as other red muds.
    It does cover ilmenite but not REEs (other than a single reference to trace metals).

    There’s enough iron in that stuff that they might be able to make taconite pellets for the steelmakers. But, then again, it’s a long way to the nearest blast furnace.

    And, not all red muds are alike, any more than ore bodies are.

    Ironically, it’s an old EPA report. I think this is probably the first time I have seen anything useful come out of that agency. But hey, data is data (are data?).

    http://nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyNET.exe/10004CK3.TXT?ZyActionD=ZyDocument&Client=EPA&Index=Prior+to+1976&Query=&SearchMethod=1&QField=&XmlQuery=&File=D%3A\zyfiles\Index%20Data\70thru75\Txt0000000\10004CK3.txt&User=ANONYMOUS&Password=anonymous&Display=p|f&DefSeekPage=x&MaximumPages=1&ZyEntry=1&SeekPage=x&ZyPURL

  4. Robin, I share the skepticism expressed by others regarding the concentrations reported indirectly for the Jamaican red muds, e.g. “2500 times more than another global deposit.” A 1987 paper (Wagh & Pinnock, Econ Geol v82 p757) reported results of a geochemical study of red muds from 4 Jamaican bauxite mines, with a maximum 3000 ppm TREE (~3500 ppm TREO), exclusive of Scandium, which ranged (10 samples) 131-172 ppm. Dysprosium was max 91 ppm. (If the other red mud deposit has 2500x LESS REEs, it would have to have <2 ppm TREO.) A modest search effort on rare earths in red muds yields a number of references reporting comparable levels of REEs, i.e. in the low 0.X% TREO range, and elevated Sc, Y and other rare metals (Ge). A geochem study from the 2010 Ajka tailings dam failure in Hungary where the red muds contain just under 1000 ppm TREE (mostly LREEs) plus 89 ppm Sc and 90 ppm Y. Ask Nippon for a their technical report, so people like me can understand what we're missing in their story. Otherwise, this story gets filed in the same place as previous stories about mining REEs from ocean-floor sediments, the moon, asteroids, ad infinitum.

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