Chinese chemistry history versus the global rare earth separation technology revolution of today
The creative destruction of today’s solvent extraction and ion exchange technologies as used for the individual separation of the rare earths from each other is underway in North America and in Europe.
Why did the creative destruction of these traditional rare earth processing technologies come about in North America and Europe rather than in China?
China developed its rare earth mining and processing industry after the end of its cultural revolution in the late 1970s. Its development gained favor with the central government and became supported financially in 1986 because Deng Xiaoping, who, after a brief inter-regnum, followed Mao Zedong, looked favorably upon the development of a rare earth industry as a wealth creating gift of nature to China. He famously remarked that the Middle East has Oil and China has the Rare Earths.
At first, between 1978 and 1996 Chinese mining engineers simply adopted mass production processing and refining techniques for the separation and purification both of mixtures of ,and then of the individual, rare earths that had previously been developed and proved by experience in Europe and the USA after World War II. Chief among these were separation by repetitive solvent extraction and purification by ion exchange. The principal large installations for the separation of the individual rare earths in 1986 were at Mountain Pass, California (light and mid range rare earth separation) and at La Rochelle, France (total separation of all of the rare earths, light, mid-range, and heavy, from each other). There were also many other much smaller installations for solvent extraction separation and purification of the rare earths in the USA, Europe, and even in the Soviet Union and Empire. Multiple non-Chinese companies at the time in the USA, Europe, and Japan also utilized ion exchange to highly purify small amounts of the individual rare earths. The Chinese benefited from the fact that many of these non-Chinese companies set up processing operations in China to take advantage of raw material availability, low construction costs and the low cost of skilled labor.
China then used this situation to rapidly “acquire” the skills and technologies needed to process and refine rare earth ores and minerals into high added-value downstream products. The first such “Chinese” installations were in Inner Mongolia at Bayanobo where the Chinese developed the largest light rare earth “mining” and refining operation in the world and from where the Chinese rare earth processing industry spread.
When the first “learning” period ended in 1998 China emerged as a rare earth powerhouse. Molycorp, as a bellwether of the changing of the guard, which had been the world’s premier producer/refiner of light rare earths as recently as 1984 shut down its mining operations in 1998 and its solvent extraction based separation operation in 2002. Both shutdowns were due to an inability to compete economically with Chinese vendors of the same products and services that Molycorp had helped China to master.
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Between 1996 and 2006 Chinese chemical engineers and metallurgists spent a lot of time and money on the development of specialized solvent extraction (SX) systems by researching and developing optimal operating parameters for the quantitative separation of the rare earths and their associated chemical elements from each other. This work involved not just chemistry and chemical engineering but also computer simulations and the control programs for managing solvent extraction systems that came from those simulations. The same was true of ion exchange technologies used to purify rare earths.
By 2006 the State Key Laboratory for Separation Chemistry at Peking University under Professor Chunhua Yan, who began his career as a student there in 1976, had hundreds of graduate students and more than 100 PhDs studying rare earth separation! The total number of such dedicated specialized researchers in the entire non-Chinese world outside of Peking U did not add up to the same number in total. Software for programmable controllers and related equipment for the solvent extraction operations were one specialty at Peking U; the other was selective extractants.
It was, however, only in 2007 that I became aware that there was a revival of interest in producing and processing the rare earths outside of China, and it seemed to me then that it was specifically driven by the idea of re-starting the world’s formerly largest partially integrated rare earth operation in southern California, USA. This meant not only restarting a mine but, more importantly, restarting a solvent extraction facility that had been closed in 2002 and that had NOT benefited from the then occurring advances in processing technology, in particular for operational technology, for such plants that had been developed in China before or during the shut-down period.
A great deal of time and money was spent on the California mine and facility, after its acquisition by a group of financiers and a trading company in 2007, to, in my opinion, re-invent the wheel, so to speak. Simultaneously Chinese SX facilities were separating into those that were modernizing and those that were simply going forward as before. While the non-Chinese investment community was focused on California’s restart the actual producing rare earth industry in China was evolving into a modern innovative group and a traditional group. Non-Chinese financiers myopically watched and used only the traditional Chinese refiners as a benchmark and gleefully awaited the completion of the California restart as a bigger, better, and, of course, the right-kind of producer (“our” kind). The Chinese government and Chinese finance in the meantime were beginning to worry that the operations of a key industry were becoming chaotic and threatening to have an impact downstream all out of proportion to the industry’s financial footprint due to the critical need for and use of small amounts of the rare earths in an already very large and still growing variety of industrial and consumer goods.
In the first phase of the redevelopment of a total rare earth supply chain outside of China a clever marketing scheme promoted the idea that the most important use of the rare earths was as key materials for the security of the US Military’s ability to have smart weapons. No one seemed to notice that the Chinese military was not part of this promotion. No one at the time said that they (The Chinese) would have “smart weapons” and we wouldn’t. The promoters only said that we wouldn’t have them (smart weapons) if the Chinese had the ability to disrupt our supply of the key (critical) rare earths used to manufacture them.
American news media could visualize an American military failing due to the lack of a raw material but could not even remotely consider or report upon the launching of Chinese nuclear powered submarines or an orbiting space station, since, of course, the USA had already done both.
Absolutely no notice whatsoever was taken between 2007 and 2012 by the burgeoning junior rare earth mining industry outside of China or its pundits or promoters of the fact that China was vastly overcapacitized in light rare earth separation facilities. The same was true for the even more astounding surplus capacity for separating the mid-range and heavy rare earths. In August 2013 at a conference in GanZhou at which I was an invited speaker another presenter showed a chart listing 38 local separation facilities for mid-range and heavy rare earths with a combined capacity of more than 60,000 mt/year, or 4 times the global production of the mid-range and heavy rare earths! The average size of the Ganzhou area SX plants was 1,500 tons per year of output capacity.
The North American and European chemical processing industries have taken note of the revival of interest in the mining and refining of the rare earths and have reaped rich rewards researching methods of beneficiating rare earth “ores,” extracting the desired metal values from the beneficiated ores, and separating the nuisance metals, particularly the radioactive ones, from the solutions to create mixed solutions that contained the concentrated the rare earths.
The mining engineering support companies are bastions of tradition and apostles of cost containment, so it was and has been unlikely that any of them would do research on their own (VERY expensive) or propose such costly work to and on behalf of clients. Research on separation technologies has mostly been done in academic settings and its implementation at scale has always been an economic issue.
However it is also true that the global mining industry’s processing innovation has come mainly from large corporations and governments driven by the necessities both of maintaining markets and supplying materials for war (defense as it has been called for the last two generations).
Recently, the majority of junior rare earth miners have realized to their despair that traditional methods of processing the rare earths into ultimate raw materials for downstream products were very expensive, time consuming, and needful of operating experience, and, that, worst of all, they are necessary in order to bring a mining operation into profitability.
Two solutions to this dilemma have been put forward:
- Finding or creating a toll processing facility that could obviate the need for the spending by small junior rare earth mining companies of huge amounts of capital to build a facility that would need years to bring into efficient operation, or
- Finding a processing technology that is lower cost and faster to bring into efficient operation.
All of the attention of the punditry and the press has been on the first option above, but fortunately for the non-Chinese junior rare earth miners a number of entrepreneurs in North America and Europe have been studying technologies well known in the metals and materials refining industries to see if they can be applied to the separation of the rare earths individually from each other more efficiently and/or cheaper than solvent extraction and ion exchange.
Academic and academically oriented scientists have also been looking at some new unproven (by experience) technologies to do the same thing.
For the last several years I have been closely following rare earth separation technologies of three types involving the:
- Acceleration and improved efficiency of traditional methods, or the
- New Application of technologies successful for other metals and materials to the separation of the rare earths, or
- New technologies never before tried at scale for the separation of the rare earths.
I have had many discussions with scientists, engineers, and industrial managers; many visits to laboratories and production facilities all over the world (including China), and I have read reams of scientific and engineering reports (and drivel).
My principal metric is cost and that cost must include both CAPEX and OPEX and include total processing time and environmental costs.
Here are the innovations for rare earth separation being tried today:
- Accelerated solvent extraction (USA and Europe) including novel extractants,
- Continuous Ion Exchange (USA),
- Chromatographic systems (USA, Canada, Europe, and Japan) including not only from liquids but also from fractionation of vaporized salts,
- Electrolytic separations (USA, Canada, Europe) including from solution and also from molten non-aqueous salts, and
- Molecular Recognition Technology (USA)
Each of the above innovative (for rare earth separations) technologies has been demonstrated in the laboratory. Two, perhaps three, that I know of are in process of going to pilot plant operation.
All of them show, on paper, an improvement in cost over solvent extraction as today practiced.
I do not see the Chinese REE processing industry changing over because it has achieved the lowest cost globally for SX and IEX based separation and has literally billions of dollars invested. Nor do I see existing SX plants outside of China with their large unamortized costs being scrapped.
What I do see and believe is that no more large scale general purpose SX plants will be built outside of China. I think that the only reason that Chinese companies such as MinMetal are planning large new SX facilities is that they are among the innovative Chinese companies and will be using accelerated SX or new extractants to improve efficiency and cut costs.
At this moment I am impressed with the streamlined (many less stages and better extractants) SX developed by Innovation Metals Corporation for separating the components of xenotime into individual 99.99% oxide form. I have visited IMC’s kilogram size pilot plant which is running near Toronto, Ontario.
I have also seen bench scale SX operations in Europe to demonstrate streamlined operations for the recovery of the rare earths in magnet scrap.
I am certain that the MRT system designed and built by IBC Advanced Technologies for Ucore’s production of high purity mixed rare earth concentrates works, and I look forward to soon seeing pilot plant results and cost. IBC has built many full scale MRT installations over the last 20-30 years for the extraction and separation of minor metals from large mining and refining operations including some in China that are in operation now. I expect that I will see an IBC MRT pilot plant for the separation of the individual rare earths from each other into high purity forms very soon.
I am also impressed by the Continuous Ion Exchange results that I have seen in the USA successfully applied to rare earth mixtures with high levels of nuisance ions such as aluminum, iron, and fluorine all of which are inimical to SX separation. This work has resulted in low cost preparation of mixed rare earth concentrates ready for SX, or, I think, ready for further individual separation at high purities by further CIC stages.
I have not seen any systems yet requiring prohibitively exotic extractants or too expensive resins.
To summarize at this point let me say that the junior rare earth mining industry was blocked from advancing by 2012 by the lack of affordable separation.
At the beginning of 2015 there are several candidates to replace large scale SX with right-sized lower cost tailored separation operations. Some of these candidates will be successful and they will enable not only tailored right-sized separation facilities but also central facilities that can accept a variety of feed stocks and tailor them to fit the plant.
I will continue to report on each of the state-of-the-art separation/ purification technologies for the rare earths as I get access to information about them.
Institutional investors wake up! A revolution is occurring. Stop looking backwards. The winning teams are on the field; they just need the equipment to do the job.
Jack Lifton is the Sr. Editor for InvestorIntel Corp. and is the CEO for Jack Lifton, LLC. He is also a consultant, author, and lecturer ... <Read more about Jack Lifton>