EDITOR: | June 8th, 2015 | 8 Comments

Mackowski on Innovation and/or Revolutionary Rare Earths Technology (Part 4)

| June 08, 2015 | 8 Comments

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:

  1. The ligand technology in MRT is much more selective than SX or IX.
  2. The ligand / REE chemistry in MRT is much faster than SX or IX.

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!

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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  • Tim Ainsworth

    Another great series thnx Steve, you provide a digestible perspective to the average punter, without waving any flags.

    June 8, 2015 - 10:35 AM

    • Tracy Weslosky

      Yes, thank you Steve. Thanking you has been on my to-do list since Saturday when you sent me this to review and publish. Your a substantial player in our industry, and your experience is very respected by me. It is your writing and the writing on the team that allows us to attract the audience that we do, thank you.

      June 9, 2015 - 8:47 AM

  • Lid

    Thanks Mr. Mackowski, as always. From what I do everyday, I understand only a project which makes money above certain percentage is considered “good project”, so CAPEX and OPEX both are important to determine if project is OK or not. in a simple word, to spend a penny to build a project and to spend a dollar to run it, is not better than to spend a dollar to build a project and spend a penny to run it, especially over the long term. For this reason, ASX has more chance to be a black horse in this race. If we look back the history of technology, it is easy to find that the advance of the technology is progressive, it is build one upon another. if we wish a new technology is better than the old one, we are always satisfied. if we wish a new technology is a silver bullet, we are always disappointed.

    June 8, 2015 - 10:21 PM

  • Geysa Pereira

    On my view, despite the selectivity, the key questions are: what about timelife of the ligants and their stability? Without a long term test on a continuous basis it is very difficult to confirm it. Other important information is related to the costs: they are said to be very expensive, at least for base metals applications. Do you have more info related to these?

    June 9, 2015 - 8:13 AM

  • Steven R. Izatt, IBC

    Hi Geysa,
    IBC’s SuperLigR products are very stable and economical. They have been used commercially on a long-term basis for decades at companies such as Asarco, Impala and Tanaka. This could not have happened if the MRT process were experimental or too costly. These are all referenced in the recent Green Chemistry paper (peer-reviewed) in Dr. Izatt’s article (the Asarco engineer is a co-author). (Izatt, R. M., Izatt, S. R., Izatt, N. E., Krakowiak, K. E., Bruening, R. L., Navarro, L; (2015). Industrial applications of Molecular Recognition Technology to green chemistry separations of platinum group metals and selective removal of metal impurities from process streams. Green Chemistry, 17, 2236-2245).
    SuperLigR cost is obviously reasonable or it wouldn’t be used commercially. Bismuth (~$6.5/lb) and copper (~$3/lb) are metals of lower value than most REEs. The economics of the MRT process have been proven.

    June 11, 2015 - 2:35 PM

  • JJBeswick

    Thanks for those useful insights Steve. Unfortunately I was unable to access the article you cited to understand the details better.
    It appears to me that “The economics of the MRT process have been proven” based on the low cost of Bismuth and Copper is unfounded unless I misunderstood how MRT is being used.
    Aren’t bismuth and copper nuisance IMPURITIES in those applications? If that’s the case I’d expect small volume high cost separation of those two might well be justified by the economics of the main product.
    Similarly the platinum group metals can sustain pretty high recovery costs.
    I’d be interested (for example) to see what % of the revenue stream is generated by Cu and Bi in those particular applications.
    Also the MRT costs per kg of recovered Cu and Bi would be of great interest.

    June 12, 2015 - 11:13 AM

  • Steve R. Izatt, IBC


    The article is published by the Royal Society of Chemistry and is available on their website:


    If the economics were not favorable, the MRT process would not be used commercially – thus, the economics are proven by actual commercial installations.

    The purpose of the bismuth separation is to purify the copper electrolyte and to recover the bismuth in an economical and environmentally responsible way. MRT is the only process that can cleanly and economically produce pure bismuth from copper electrolyte. All of the copper electrolyte in the tank house (hundreds of thousands of tons) is purified using the MRT system. Tons of bismuth are produced per annum. The Green Chemistry paper states: “Over the period January 2010 through October 2014, the amount of Bi processed in Cu anodes at Asarco’s Amarillo, Texas copper refinery (ACR) was appreciable, ranging from ∼1600 to ∼5500 kg per month with most values being ∼3000 to ∼3600 kg per month.”

    Bismuth, similarly to the REEs, is removed at hundreds of mg/L from a base metal matrix (in this case copper and other impurities) at the g/L level. The bismuth is recovered economically and sold as a pure salt. Of particular note with the Asarco application, is that the MRT system replaced an existing ion exchange system that they had previously installed. The economics of a new system (MRT) must be extremely compelling to get a major copper refining company to switch technologies.

    Regarding PGMs, it is, in fact, untrue that they can sustain relatively high separation costs. Rather, the opposite is true. The separation cost using conventional technology is typically less, and sometimes much less, than 1% of the value of the metal, recoveries are very high, and the separation process constitutes a small percentage of the overall value chain. This contrasts with REEs, where the separation cost using traditional technologies is at a high (or very high) percentage of the value of the metal, recoveries are very low, and the separation process constitutes a major cost component of the overall value chain. The difference arises from the fact that there are a number of competitive separation techniques for PGMs that have been used for decades. The fact that MRT is used commercially in the PGM industry is a testament to the fact that it is economical under very competitive circumstances. MRT has been chosen over widely-used techniques that have served the PGM industry well, such as precipitation, SX and IX, by major mining and refining companies. No small feat.


    June 14, 2015 - 9:41 PM

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