It’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.
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.