Game on as the rare earth processing revolution has officially begun
The rare earth processing revolution has begun in earnest as a set of North American and European hard rock Heavy Rare Earth Miners separate from the Pack.
The geology of heavy rare earth sourcing was stuck on China’s ionic adsorption clays and its “simple” extraction process, washing with a solution of simple ionic salts, was identified as both the process and the costs to meet or beat in order to be competitive.
But these deposits are one-trick ponys; after one cycle of washing, precipitating, and drying the Chinese pony express would ride on to the next hill and do it again. As long as there was a free flow of these increasingly critical materials out of China no one, frankly, gave a damn about competing with them.
Today, however, in the non-Chinese Rare Earth apace the processing revolution has arrived. The days during which Chinese ionic adsorption clays were the only known economical and practical source of the key and critical heavy rare earths have ended this week, and their demise as sole source is shining a spotlight on the North American and European hard rock sources of heavy rare earths as the obvious future global suppliers of these most critical materials.
When the USA’s Molycorp was used by a group of financial manipulators to kick start a “rare earth revolution” they backed the wrong horse and divined a future demand that was backwards. No one questioned the new emperor’s lack of a wardrobe, because geologists were set busy finding and re-finding rare earth bearing deposits to take advantage of the glorious revolution as a new way to separate resource investors from their money. Most of the juniors were “mining the street” for capital for shapeless or simply wrong business models of development. It was a time of big conferences, big cars, and big offices in Toronto, Vancouver, Perth and Sydney.
To cut to the chase: I have been following and advising on business operations just four rare earth junior companies for several years that have quietly now each separately on its own moved up and away from the herd to form an elite group of competitors each of which has:
- Maximized the extraction of the desired mineral values from their ore bodies,
- Separated completely the radioactive species from the PLS,
- Removed the low value light rare earths, cerium and lanthanum, from the PLS, and
- Produced a mixed rare earth concentrate, free of cerium, lanthanum, thorium, and uranium, that contains from 99 to 99.999% of trans-cerium (neodymium and beyond) critical, SEG, and heavy rare earths.
- In addition at least one has already announced that it has further separated the mix obtained in step 4 into separate light rare earth and a heavy rare earth concentrates. I believe that we will see one more of them achieve this desirable goal shortly and all four of them will have done it by the first quarter of next year although not necessarily with four different technologies.
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NOT A SINGLE ONE OF THESE COMPANIES HAS BUILT A FULL SCALE SX PLANT!
All of them have taken “traditional” extraction and separation technologies, the use of which is exemplified and promoted by the vast multitude of former big mining managers who populate the rare earth junior space, and have either improved upon them, in the case of SX, by accelerating the process time and reducing dramatically the number of mixer-settler stages needed, or by using solid phase chromatographic technologies such as continuous ion exchange, and even by using some break-out technologies that I am not yet at liberty to disclose.
The current rare earth interest was triggered by Molycorp’s acquisition by a very deep pockets group of Wall Street, The City of London, and the Perth Exchange players. But I think that they backed the wrong horse. They chose a high grade light rare earth mine with essentially no heavy rare earths at all other than traces. They were focused on the IPO market in order to make a lot of money as quickly as possible, and it worked.
However from the very first day an analysis of the future rare earth markets led to the conclusion that the ideal rare earth deposit would be a heavy rare earth themed mineral mix with substantial light rare earth content, especially content of neodymium and praseodymium (the “magnet metals”). However even if they had realized this, and they may well have done so, they were focused on the idea that the ionic adsorption clays in China were unbeatable on a cost basis. They seemed to have completely ignored the fact that the immense entrenched Chinese light rare earth mines were even more unbeatable on a cost basis.
In any case some few western miners caught on to the fact that the maintenance of a global heavy rare earth supply based upon Chinese ionic adsorption clays was a fallacy. They then looked for and found and began the development of hard rock sources of the heavy rare earths, which do not seem to occur in China.
I well remember Bay Street hacks and lightweights braying about the fact that a mine solely for producing heavy rare earths could not possible be competitive with the Chinese “clays.” No one other than a shrewd Canadian group of high profile investors gave a thought to the weathered bastnaesite deposits in Wyoming that proved to be laced with (relatively) high grades of “heavy rare earths.” Even last year when the CEO of Rare Element Resources announced that Bear Lodge sat in the middle of a heavy rare earth “district” with deposits found to be increasingly rich in the heavy rare earths did anyone pay attention. As I said the first time I picked up a handful of weathered bastnaesite from a wheel barrow at Bear Lodge, Wyoming, “If you’ve got light rare earths in this condition and substantial heavy rare earths who needs Molycorp.”
I will now expand that to “If you’ve got Rare Element Resources, Ucore, and Texas Rare Earths, and each of them has a concentration regime and metallurgy (efficient extraction) worked out and each of them has a low cost separation/purification technology, and in Europe you’ve got Tasman Metals with the same processing credentials, who needs Molycorp?”
The Chinese say “may you live in interesting times” as a compliment. The hard rock heavy rare earth space is now entering interesting times.
There are some other good choices among the deadwood of the rare earth space, but they are in Africa and Australia, and I don’t yet know enough about them to put them among the Fab Four above (For you youngsters the Fab Four was the nickname of the Beatles that I and your grandparents enjoyed listening to).
Jack Lifton is the CEO for Jack Lifton, LLC and is a consultant, author, and lecturer on the market fundamentals of technology metals. Technology metals ... <Read more about Jack Lifton>