Mackowski on Innovation and/or Revolutionary Rare Earths Technology (Part 4)
This article is Part 4 and the final of a series of articles discussing new rare earths technologies as to whether they are innovative or revolutionary. Earlier, Part 1 looked at an introduction to the definitions of innovation and revolutionary, and Part 2, the technology based around 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. Last week, Part 3 then investigated the impact of the technology around heap leaching of rare earths ore and subsequent continuous ion exchange replacing the standard extraction and purification circuits, ie replacing sulphation/water leaching and impurity removal. I now want to look at the final technology: Molecular Recognition Technology (MRT) that replaces the current operating standard for rare earths separation, ie replaces solvent extraction. For clarification, I have been challenged as to which is the best technology? Hopefully you will have noticed that I am not commenting on the veracity of the technology itself. That is better left to “New Scientist” or similar. What I am concentrating on is the impact of the technology on the rare earths space. That is, I am assuming the technology works! I am looking for a “game-changer”!
So is MRT a game-changer?
It appears to me that all of these technologies are looking at replacing, or reducing the costs of, the conventional separation technology, that is, solvent extraction (SX), to various degrees. As stated in Part 2, reducing cerium to a downstream SX has a good but limited return. Perhaps a $25 million saving on a $230 million separation plant. As stated in Part 3, the opportunity of Continuous Ion Exchange to replace SX is not seen as having an impact on comparative costs. But I am looking forward to further works on Continuous Ion Chromatography (CIC) and Free Flow Electrophoresis (FFE).
Unfortunately, CIC and FFE are not sufficiently advanced for me to actually comment quantitatively. Either the laboratory work is incomplete or pilot plants have not been run. Could they be game-changers? Maybe. We will have to wait. But what I do see as a game-changer is MRT. Now I know that the nay-sayers will be responding as they read with “MRT has not been to pilot”, “MRT has not been scaled up”, but it has. Let me explain.
Laboratory experiments provide proof of principle of new technology and provide data upon which to design a pilot plant. The laboratory data can also be used to feed the engineering for early scoping study works. This provides the answer to an early question: “Is this process feasible?” When the feasibility answer is yes, a move to pilot plant is made. Although the pilot plant does demonstrate the new technology in a continuous process, it’s prime objective is to provide better data for the process engineering design. This is why scoping studies have +/- 50% cost estimates, PFS are down to +/-30% and Bankable Feasibility Study cost estimates are +/-15%. The process data is better, therefore the engineering is better and therefore the costings are more accurate. So why does the reported works on MRT differ from CIC and FFE? The answer is that MRT scale up has been done on many occasions, on other elements, but yes, not on rare earths. So the MRT process engineering is well known and this is NOT so dependent on the chemistry. So I would totally expect the MRT to work as planned at pilot plant level (and hence full process plant level), but how much better than it’s rivals? That is a wait and see question (on CIC and FFE).
OK, why is MRT a game-changer? Based on the reported data and following clarification discussions with the technology developers, I can respond accordingly:
- The ligand technology in MRT is much more selective than SX or IX.
- The ligand / REE chemistry in MRT is much faster than SX or IX.
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The impacts of these two advantages are that the number of process stages is dramatically reduced and the size of individual stages is also dramatically reduced. Although quantitative verification of these advantages will be required for differing feed stocks, in our comparative example with Frontier, it’s $230 million separation facility could be reduced in CAPEX to ~$25 million. That is TO $25 not BY! This is the game-changer rationale.
Now, could CIC or FFE achieve this performance? Do not know yet. We will have to wait and see.
What is the impact on OPEX? The answer is don’t know and cannot know until at least laboratory testing is performed. The costs of any pre-treatment, the REE-specific ligands, etc are still to be quantified and are likely to be application specific. So I will assume no change to OPEX!
So again, why a game-changer? Well, if someone has plans for a conventional REO SX plant, then technology to save $200 million is certainly a major NPV driver. It will also help significantly in financing the project. It is also an opportunity for those who are not planning to add value to their “mixed REO concentrate” to think again. Maybe adding value through MRT for $25 million is worth thinking about. And for those thinking about building tolling plants, the business model is greatly improved through MRT versus SX and I would expect the advantages of the technology would provide significant operational improvements to overcome any REE feed distribution problems. Truly a game-changer across the whole spread of REO projects!
Next move? Well, if I was developing an REO project, MRT would most certainly now be on my radar!
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>