EDITOR: | May 18th, 2015 | 3 Comments

Mackowski on Innovation and/or Revolutionary Rare Earths Technology (Part 1)

| May 18, 2015 | 3 Comments

As a follow on from my previous articles on Radionuclides, Separation and Success Factors of Rare Earths, I have been approached to comment on the recent developments in rare earth processing and the impacts on the flow sheet, the start-up capital required and the operating cost implications. This is no easy task to do in a general sense that is easily understandable by the non-technical person. But I will try. Previous readers may find it helpful to refresh your mind on my previous articles. New readers should see the references as somewhat prerequisite reading.

  1. Radionuclides
  2. Separation of Rare Earths – Art vs. Science: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII & IX
  3. Rare Earth Success Factors
    1. Parts 1 and Part 2 – How mineralogy is the KEY success factor
    2. Part 3 – How a new view of “basket price” can point the way as a cover-all financial success factor
    3. Part 4 – How the capability of the Board and Management can be viewed as a success factor
    4. Part 5 – Introduction of “Mine to Market Place strategy” as a success factor
    5. Part 6 – Success Factors for Rare Earths Development

As a starting point let us refer to Wikipedia for the relevant definitions.

Innovation is a new idea, more effective device or process. Innovation can be viewed as the application of better solutions that meet new requirements, inarticulated needs, or existing market needs. This is accomplished through more effective products, processes, services, technologies, or ideas that are readily available to markets, governments and society. The term innovation can be defined as something original and more effective and, as a consequence, new, that “breaks into” the market or society.

While a novel device is often described as an innovation, in economics, management science, and other fields of practice and analysis innovation is generally considered to be a process that brings together various novel ideas in a way that they have an impact on society.

Innovation differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of a better and, as a result, novel idea or method, whereas invention refers more directly to the creation of the idea or method itself. Innovation differs from improvement in that innovation refers to the notion of doing something different rather than doing the same thing better.

A revolutionary is a person who either actively participates in, or advocates revolution. Also, when used as an adjective, the term revolutionary refers to something that has a major, sudden impact on society or on some aspect of human endeavor.

So, firstly innovation. I will be looking at three technologies that have been reported in the last year.

  1. Molecular Recognition Technology (MRT) that replaces the current operating standard for rare earths separation, ie replaces solvent extraction.
  2. Discarding low value rare earth product (namely cerium) early in the flow sheet so as to reduce the scale and complexity of downstream processing, particularly separation.
  3. Heap leaching of rare earths ore and subsequent continuous ion exchange replacing the standard extraction and purification circuits, ie replaces sulphation/water leaching and impurity removal.

To date, the companies with these technologies have not produced sufficient data to be thoroughly quantifiable in any comparison. And in any case they will reference their specific project. So I will reference the recently published Frontier Canadian National Instrument 43-101, Preliminary Feasibility Study (PFS) and its enclosed economic data as a point of comparison so that that the impacts of the technologies can be proposed and the key highlights can be brought forward.

Are the technologies classed as innovation? Quite clearly, all technologies are new to the rare earths space. Some have been used in other industries, on other metals, but clearly these technologies are new to the rare earths space and can be classed as innovative. How innovative, like most things, is in the eye of the beholder. A better measure of comparison can be found in their revolutionary implications. Are they game-changers?

I have always been meaning to write on the waste management issues (other than the radionuclides which are covered above). Now I need to! The three technologies have specific waste management issues which need to be understood before any “revolutionary” comparisons can be made. So before I move onto discussing the “revolutionary” implications, I’ll give you an abbreviated “Waste Management in REO Processing 101” to use as a background understanding.

Mining and Beneficiation. The first steps in the processing sequence. Materials to be managed are the waste, the non-ore that is discarded as part of the mining campaign. There are also the non-valuable constituents of the ore that are discarded after beneficiation. These wastes may be after crushing, grinding, magnetic or gravity separation, or after flotation, or after any similar physical separation of the valuable minerals from the valueless waste. Tonnages, size distribution, very minor chemical additions will vary from project to project. Over many projects that I have been involved with, efforts around these activities can be as much as 25% of the CAPEX and OPEX of a project.

Rare Earths Extraction and Purification. These are the steps where the rare earths in the mineral concentrate are rendered soluble to allow further processing. This step needs to occur for all rare earths technologies and delivers two types of waste. One is the un-dissolved material after the solubilisation process. For the most part this material is simply chemically un-reactive ore, but it does contain residual reagents, sometimes radionuclide impurities and can contain materials that may be potentially harmful to the environment (acid mine drainage for example). The other wastes depend on the processing circuit configuration. They may be from the progressive and successive removal of unwanted impurities (iron, thorium, uranium, manganese) leaving a clean liquor (the PLS). Or they may be the very impure liquor remaining that has had the rare earths removed (aluminum, phosphate). In either case there is a waste liquor that needs to be neutralized, needs to manage the long term storage issue of the un-wanted wastes and is carefully managed to ensure an effective water balance. This exercise, although its function is product recovery and quality, has significant impact on the CAPEX and OPEX of a project. A figure of 50% is quite typical.

Rare Earths Separation. This is where the above liquid PLS containing a mixture of the purifies rare earths or a mixed rare earths solid is dissolved to make a PLS is processed to separate the rare earths as mixtures, mixtures with certain end market requirements and individual rare earths or as all of the individual rare earths themselves. Wastes are generated here and these need to be managed. CAPEX and OPEX implications can be of the order of 25% of the projects costs.

So how do the three innovative technologies compare? I want to use the recently issued Frontier Resources, Zandkopsdrift project in South Africa, PFS, as a means of comparison. That is, if the three technologies were applicable and usable, what would the impacts be? It maybe opportune to review the Frontier document before next week’s article where I will progress the discussion.

Steve Mackowski


Mr Mackowski is a qualified engineer in mineral processing with over 30 years technical and operational experience in rare earths, uranium, industrial minerals, nickel, kaolin ... <Read more about Steve Mackowski>

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  • Lid

    Mr. Mackowski,
    As always, very informative and educational, looking forwards for more form you, Thanks.

    May 21, 2015 - 6:50 PM

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