EDITOR: | May 15th, 2015 | 28 Comments

Molecular Recognition Technology: Clean Chemistry Applied to 21st Century Rare Earth Separation

| May 15, 2015 | 28 Comments
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Beneficiation of rare earth elements (REE, singular or plural) is an increasingly important field in the West, especially given the uncertainty of supply originating from China, and the growing reliance of the world’s leading economies on ever faster, lighter and more efficient technologies. However, our dependence on REE has come at a remarkable price; one that has been shouldered primarily by China by way of an environmental deficit that cannot easily be reversed or repaid. In seeking to develop non-Chinese REE resources, the world needs a better mousetrap to capture REE; one without the toll that comes with wholesale disposal of effluents, reagents and caustic byproducts. MRT is such a technology, and the prospect of its deployment at production scale is very near.

Historical REE Separation & the Costly Effects of Legacy Technology

REE have essential, critical and unique uses in our global high-tech military, industrial, and commercial economy sectors. These include the use of REE in phosphors, high performance magnets, catalysts, and glass polishing [1]. Each of these applications requires high purity individual REE. Graedel, et al. [2] have pointed out that potential substitutes for a dozen critical metals, such as Dysprosium (Dy), Europium (Eu), Yttrium (Y), Thulium (Tm), and Ytterbium (Yb) are either inadequate or do not exist. In other words, substitution of less expensive metals or other materials for these critical metals is highly unlikely either now or in the future.

Since recycling rates for REE are <1% [3], their continuing supply in the near term must come from mined ore. It would be expected that this supply requirement would place a premium on the processing of REE by efficient, economical, and environmentally friendly green chemistry separation methods. Sadly, this is not the case. Nearly all mining, beneficiation, separation and purification operations involving REE are carried out in China, where enormous quantities of waste are generated and legislative restrictions either do not exist or are weakly enforced. In 2014, a European Commission Memo reported that China’s share of the light REE global market was 87%, but its heavy REE global market share was 99% [4]. A small amount of production, primarily involving light REE, is done in the U.S. by MolyCorp at Mt. Pass in California [1,5] and in Australia by Lynas [1].

Conventional methods used in all REE separation processes are based primarily on solvent extraction (SX) and ion exchange (IX). These methods unfortunately rank very low relative to their ability to meet stringent standards of clean chemistry, efficiency and economics. In fact, they are responsible, in large part, for severe environmental and human health problems associated with REE mining world-wide. These collateral problems are particularly evident in China, where most REE are mined and processed via low selectivity separation methods. The result is the discharge of generated waste into surrounding air, water, and land sites. Lax enforcement of existing regulatory laws have only served to exacerbate the problem [6,7].

High Selectivity & the Movement Towards Elegant REE Separation

The first principle of a successful clean chemistry separation methodology is that it be capable of attaining high selectivity. By “selectivity”, we mean the ability to not only surgically target the desired metal(s) over other metals present in the solution at each stage of the separation process but to do so at high efficiency (i.e., >99%). High selectivity is important because it enables one to remove one metal at a time from a mixture, usually in a column mode. This separated metal is then eluted from the column in pure form. Thus, in an ideal processing scenario, the valuable metals are targeted early and impure metals are removed without delay. In this way, one is not continually faced with the need, downstream, to separate impurity metals from the one of interest, since these are not present.

In the case of the REE, high selectivity is imperative. The goal is the separation of the entire set of 16 REE from the surrounding gangue metals as quickly and efficiently as possible. In this way, the processor graduates from a mixed ore concentrate (akin to a mixed stew) to a suite of pure REE (comparable to a high quality bouillon). With the impurities removed at an early stage, the remaining concentrate is then ready for the selective capture of each individual REE.

InvestorIntel_MRT

An Historical Problem

Traditional methods of separating REE from gangue materials, such as SX and IX, have very low selectivity and are relatively inefficient in the percentage of valuable REE that they retain. In most cases, the retention factor is far less than 99%, and can be as low as 80%. The result is that appreciable quantities of these gangue metals remain in the process flow and follow the REE downstream as retained impurities. As a result, the need to capture these impurities in subsequent steps, where individual REE are being separated from each other, can have a significant impact on capital expense (Capex) and operating expense (Opex) costs, with much waste generation, requiring additional costs for treatment and disposal. Further, most rare earth ores contain thorium and uranium. If these are not separated from the REE in the initial separation stage, they are eventually discharged downstream into the commons, following separation from the target REE. The end result can be severe environmental and human health problems. This has been seen both in China, and in the United States in the 1990s and earlier, at the Mt. Pass REE operation in California [7].

In 2014, IBC Advanced Technologies, Inc. (IBC) undertook to address this problem. Under the direction of Ucore, Hazen Laboratories in Golden, CO provided IBC with a pregnant leach solution (PLS) prepared from ore taken from the Bokan Dotson-Ridge REE deposit in Southeast Alaska. The objective was for IBC scientific personnel to develop a flow sheet, based on their experience with Molecular Recognition Technology (MRT), for the separation, using a proprietary SuperLig® green chemistry hydrometallurgical process, of individual REE from this PLS at the >99% purity level. The resultant flow sheet was then to be tested, using IBC’s SuperLig® technology (MRT), with the PLS solution to make individual REE separations at the >99% purity level. The MRT process for selective metal separations was developed by IBC over two decades ago and has been used successfully since that time in making commercial separations of numerous metals [8-10].

A clean, initial separation of the set of 16 REE at the >99% level was made from the PLS using SuperLig® technology [11]. Having this pure set of REE greatly simplified subsequent separation of individual REE from each other. The ability to remove impurity metals at this stage was a high priority for IBC, since conventional separation processes largely fail at this important juncture, and are a major contributor to increased Capex, Opex and waste generation. For example, the mining and processing of REE in China exhibit a high level of negative externality, with inherently inefficient and low selectivity separations technology resulting in unmanageable quantities of waste and cleanup expense. In the long term, the costs of remediation are not incorporated into the processing cost. Rather, they are borne by society at large, that has to deal with the resultant pollution and environmental degradation. This is a daunting task for which the accounting is essentially impossible [6,7].

A REE Separation Breakthrough

Through MRT processes, IBC successfully generated a high purity REE mixed concentrate, early in the process cycle and almost completely free of impurity metals. Greater than 99% of the REE were separated from the non-REE. This achievement highlighted a great advantage of MRT over traditional legacy technologies: the ability to remove very nearly all nuisance metals at the start of the process circuit, while recovering essentially all of the REE. The positive economics stemming from this accomplishment are clear, especially when compared with the relatively low recovery rates of legacy technologies, which can be as poor as 80%. With this important benchmark now achieved, IBC researchers were at liberty to focus on an objective that had long proven elusive within the metallurgy community: The separation of the individual REE from each other, without the use of potentially costly and environmentally invasive methods such as IX and SX.

As the final outcome of the Bokan ore study, IBC was able to accomplish this important objective. Our researchers elected to first separate Ce and Sc from the set of 16 REE, using customized SuperLig® procedures. The residual REE were then separated into a light plus yttrium (La, Pr, Nd + Y) group, and a heavy + samarium (Sm-Lu) group, followed by individual selective separations of the REE in each group. With the end goal thus achieved, each rare earth metal was precipitated as a high purity carbonate salt.

To verify the results, two separate analyses were made of REE purity. First, at IBC, solutions containing the separated, individual REE were analyzed using an inductively coupled plasma (ICP) mass spectrometry procedure. All purity levels were >99%. Second, Ucore contracted with an independent analytical laboratory to determine purity levels of the individual REE carbonate salts. All purity levels were >99%. These results confirmed the separation of the individual REE from each other at the target >99% level.

The REE were eluted from the SuperLig® columns with small quantities of acid, producing concentrated solutions of the pure metal for easy and economical salt production that is compatible with the Ucore flow sheet. Precipitation of REE carbonate salts requires minimal reagents and no heating. If desired, these salts can easily be converted to rare earth oxides by heating.

Successful completion of the project was announced in a press release on March 2, 2015 [11]. The announcement represented the separation of each individual REE at >99% purity (with the exception of Sm and Gd, which had been separated as a pair). A second press release dated April 28, 2015  [12] announced the successful separation of Sm and Gd from the combined pair at the >99% level. Photographs of the individual carbonate salts were published on March 2 by way of the Ucore web site [13].

MRT & the Future of REE Processing

With the increasing profile of REE in the media and investment communities in recent years, numerous methods have been proposed for the separation of the individual lanthanides. Remarkably, outside of the separations recently achieved by IBC using MRT, to our knowledge, there has been no evidence presented or reported that any of these methods has been successful in obtaining the complete recovery of the REE and the subsequent separation of individual REE, derived from PLS, at high purity. We note that non-MRT technologies generally rely upon separation processes of low selectivity. These processes, based on SX, IX, electrophoresis, and chromatography, are inherently problematic, due to their low selectivity and their requirement of multiple separation stages to produce highly purified metals.

Beyond the obvious benefits of selectivity, MRT is noteworthy for the simplicity of its process architecture and its ease of automation. The result is a remarkable decrease in Capex, Opex, processing time, and environmental footprint associated with REE refining operations. This augmented simplicity follows from the high metal selectivity designed into the MRT system. Labor, space, and material costs are lowered relative to conventional systems, since waste generation is minimized and many fewer separation stages are required. No flammable solvents are utilized. Thus, there is no need for their accommodation and eventual disposal as hazardous materials. Further, the ability of the MRT process to separate and recover metals at the mg/L and lower concentration levels significantly reduces waste and permitting issues.

For the interested reader, SuperLig® technology (MRT) has been described in recent articles authored by me and my associates [7,8]. We welcome feedback and insight from you, as subscribers to InvestorIntel. For now, our near term mission is a clear one: the design and construction of a pilot plant to further demonstrate separations of the individual REE at process scale. 

References

  1. Van Gosen, B.S., Verplanck, P.L., Long, K.R., Gambogi, Joseph, and Seal, R.R., II, 2014, The rare-earth elements—Vital to modern technologies and lifestyles: U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 2014–3078, 4 p., click here
  2. Graedel, T. E.; Harper, E. M.; Nassar, N. T.; Reck, B. K. (2015). On the materials basis of modern society,  Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 112, 4257-4262.
  3. Reck, B. K.; Graedel, T. E. (2012). Challenges in metal recycling, Science, 337, 690-695.
  4. European Critical Raw Materials Review, European Commission, Memo, Press Release Database Brussels, Belgium, 26 May 2014
  5. Pradip; Fuerstenau, D.W. (2013). Design and development of novel flotation reagents for the beneficiation of Mountain Pass rare-earth ore, Minerals & Metallurgical Processing, 30, 1-9.
  6. Yang, X. J.; Lin, A.; Li, X.-L.; Wu, Y.; Zhou, W.; Chen, C. Q. (2013). China’s ion-adsorption rare earth resources, mining consequences and preservation, Environmental Development, 8, 131-136.
  7. Izatt, R. M., Izatt, S. R., Bruening, R. L., Izatt, N. E., Moyer, B. A. (2014). Challenges to achievement of metal sustainability in our high-tech society. Chemical Society Reviews, 43, 2451-2475.
  8. 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.
  9. Izatt, S. R., Bruening, R. L., Izatt, N. E. (2012). Status of metal separation and recovery in the mining industry. Journal of Metals, 64, 1279-1284.
  10. Izatt, N. E., Bruening, R. L., Krakowiak, K. E., Izatt, S. R. (2000). Contributions of Professor Reed M. Izatt to Molecular Recognition Technology: From laboratory to commercial application. Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research, 39, 3405-3411.
  11. Press release, Mar 2, 2015. Molecular Recognition Technology: Environmentally Friendly, Cost Efficient Separation of Each Individual Rare Earth Element
  12. Press release, April 28, 2015. Ucore Updates on the Separation of Individual Rare Earth Elements
  13. Molecular Recognition Technology: Environmentally Friendly, Cost Efficient Separation of Each Individual Rare Earth Element

Reed M. Izatt, PhD

Editor:

Reed M. Izatt received a BS degree in Chemistry from Utah State University (1951) and a PhD degree in Chemistry with an Earth Sciences minor ... <Read more about Reed M. Izatt, PhD>


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Comments

  • Molecular Recognition Technology: Clean Chemistry Applied to 21st Century … – InvestorIntel | Latest science news

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    May 15, 2015 - 12:23 PM

  • David Covell

    Dr Izatt –

    Congratulations!!! on your accomplishments so far with the use of MRT on REE separations. In you obvious considerable experience, is there any real concern or potential problem in scaling this process to pilot plant or even commercial size? If so, what are these potential problems? Thank you and thanks for saving society from a mess as well.

    May 15, 2015 - 12:41 PM

  • David Covell

    It is difficult for me to believe that the market is not going absolutely ballistic on this news. Is no one paying any attention at all?

    May 15, 2015 - 12:47 PM

  • alvarita

    I’m not surprised in the least. To date I haven’t seen any numbers published as to amount or quality of feedstock, time taken to process, cost to process, or final amount of material produced. I’m waiting to see specific numbers and independent third party verification before investing in any of the companies making such claims. It’s called due diligence. Your mileage may vary.

    May 15, 2015 - 2:07 PM

  • alan levy

    Dr. Izatt:

    I guess I followed the opposite track from you, in that I majored in Geology and minored in Chemistry. I remember doing a P-chem lab that called for 0.2 atmospheres of CO2 and instead applied 2 atmospheres. When I blew the apparatus apart, the lab instructor told me that he would have thrown me the hell out of the class, except that I was a geology major and figured that that was about my level of accomplishment!

    Anyway, I have a question for you …. after removal of Ce and Sc, you separate into a lights + Y group and a heavies + Sm group. But owing to the lanthanide contraction, in geologic environments, the the yttrium follow the heavies. Why the difference?

    May 15, 2015 - 2:24 PM

  • David Mortimer

    It may seem strange that the markets have not caught on yet but you must put things into context , at the moment Molycorp IMO are poisoning the Rare Earth market at the moment due to their massive losses in the field but I think one of the problems is differentiating between the light rare earth mines and the much more important HRE mines , they seem to be all lumped in together hopefully as Ucore progresses the big investors will see that UCORE has the potential to be blue chip stock with all it’s upsides , high tech industries interested in it the US defense department is already interested in doing business with Ucore once it has proven it can get into production a ready made customer in the sidelines itching to do business with Ucore …

    May 15, 2015 - 4:11 PM

  • Don Lay

    David:
    Today the only HREE mines globally are the ionic clays in Southern China, a geological anomaly. Although rare-earth are always found together, due to the chemical similarity of the elements, generally speaking there are more lights than heavies in nature — see the graphic here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rare_earth_element#/media/File:Elemental_abundances.svg . Both historically and today LREE’s are more important than heavies and they form the bulk of the volume and revenue in the rare-earth business. This is because lights are always more available and therefore firms are willing develop and commercialize applications using them. It is true on a kg. basis that HREEs are more valuable but only because they are rare and have there own unique properties. If and when HREEs are produced in large volume those prices too will be much lower. Be careful what you wish for …

    Don.

    May 15, 2015 - 6:44 PM

  • Alex

    Anycase you will need processing plant to process HREE Carbonate mixture or Carbonate Element to purify it .
    If you just see Chinese import statistick you will see price around 7 USD per kg. If you can supply HREE Carbonate in quantaties 10 tonnes for LOT or more – and have profit – you are welcome ! If not and the cost of HREE Carbonate will be more I afraid you can not compete. Anycase just produce first 10 tonnes and then we will discuss this suggestion.

    May 15, 2015 - 10:38 PM

  • Tony

    bobby careful in the wind, some of those tickets might blow off’

    one big difference between cerium and yttrium you are overlooking

    some cost recovery can be achieved for yttrium – yes there is a market for it, yet with cerium there is no market for those last to market with their cerium

    May 16, 2015 - 7:32 AM

  • JACK LIFTON

    Tony, Bob

    Bob is right. Yttrium is the most produced of the ” rare earth associated elements.” At an estimated 8-10 thousand tons per year it comprises some 2/3 of all of the heavy rare earths produced. The issue is that it’s production is entirely within China’s domestic REE industry.
    Yttrium’s price today is less than $10/kg. The case for producing it in Alaska, Wyoming, or Texas is one of national security not selling price.
    The USA just needs smarter congresspersons to offset myopic Wall Streeters.

    Jack

    May 16, 2015 - 8:14 AM

  • Mr.Jimmy

    My money is still on GeoMegA out of Quebec and their benchmark results using the “free flow electrophoresis technology”. They are a full year ahead of UCU and can separate ALL rare earths to 100% purity in a SINGLE step and they own the patents 100% unlike Ucore. Also the PEA on their Montivel property soon to come out. Infustricture in place unlike Ucore which is located on an island off of the shores of Alaska (WTF???). Quarter of the shares outstanding too.

    Ucore is all hype and going by the share price and volume since their big news smart money is not buying into Lifton’s or Invetorintels every second day pumping. Wonder why that is?

    I love that GMA has slammed the door on Jack. No wonder he never mentions them and only plugs the companies he is on the board of. Do your DD on GMA…. it is where the money will be made in the next few months and beyond.

    Cheers

    May 16, 2015 - 2:54 PM

  • Jim

    What ever happened to Quest Rare Minerals?

    May 16, 2015 - 6:36 PM

  • Jack Lifton

    Rather than reply in particular let me reply in general:

    1. MRT: Prof Izatt’s article is a wealth of information and analysis by the leading authority in the field. He has appended a large number of scientific (peer reviewed) articles for those who wish to dig deeper.
    2. CIC/CIX: I suspect and hope that we will soon see a detailed article about this separation technology as applied to the rare earths also written by a scientist and referencing peer reviewed articles.
    ALL the rest: Geomega’s “process” is shrouded in secrecy as is that of Rare Earth Salts. This doesn’t mean that they don’t work; it means that they wish to keep the details and mechanics of the technologies proprietary. I think this is a mistake,
    In any case the issue with each and every one of these new or newly applied technologies is the ease of scale-up and the economics of scale-up to commercial size producing customer specified materials.
    Only time and pilot plant investment stand between any of the above technologies and its commercial implementation.
    In the meantime accelerated solvent extraction; ionic liquids; activated surfaces; biological reduction; and even ultra-violet light based techniques are in development for rare earth separation.
    Time will tell which or which ones of these technologies becomes commercialized.
    It is certain that the rare earth separation operations by the 2020s will be quite different from today’s operations.

    Jack

    May 16, 2015 - 7:06 PM

  • Jack Lifton

    Bob,

    You’re right on both accounts. But just as the j.v., often provides the talent for the varsity team we have a situation where good pilot plant operation is the key to unlocking the big bucks. It seems likely to me that one or more of these technologies could prove cheaper, not to construct, but to operate. One big advantage of the new technologies would be their ability to operate with essentially no LOWER limit of batch size. Another could be versatility; it looks like it will be possible to configure variable front ends so that one plant could process several types of ores.

    Jack

    May 16, 2015 - 9:17 PM

  • Dr. Reed Izatt

    I appreciate your support. The short answer to your question is that we are very confident in our ability to scale up this process. There are no real concerns. The reason I make these statements is that (1) the column system to be used is simple in design and we have had experience in using this process with many other metal separation and recovery systems worldwide, (2) the chemistry of the system to be scaled up is understood as evidenced by our achievement of the selective separation of individual REE from the PLS solution, and (3) compared to, for example, the separation of the platinum group metals (PGM), which we have successfully scaled up and commercialized worldwide, the separation of REE are much easier. The REE have a single oxidation state, which simplifies the complexity of their separation. Each of the PGM has multiple oxidation states requiring, for example, maintenance of solution oxidation-reduction potentials during the separation process.
    Our past experience in scaling up to commercial systems worldwide give us confidence that we will be successful in this endeavor.
    Thanks again for your interest. Reed

    May 16, 2015 - 11:06 PM

  • Dr. Reed Izatt

    Hi David, The Rare Earth space is recognized for its enigmatic nature. I agree with you. The news is truly disruptive and fundamentally changes the dynamics of the marketplace. The main objective of this article is to eliminate ambiguity and add the clarity that good science can deliver. Investor Intel has attracted a well-informed readership and I expect that the information provided in this article will be helpful in promoting green chemistry processes in rare earth beneficiation, separation, and recovery processes.
    Thank you again for your comments, Reed

    May 16, 2015 - 11:08 PM

  • Dr. Reed Izatt

    . Thank you for your interest and for the interesting question you pose. The lanthanide contraction results in the heavy REE, Ho3+, having an ionic radius that is nearly identical to that of Y3+. Similar ionic radii plus their mutual affinity for oxygen gives a reasonable explanation for the observation that these ions are found together in minerals. It’s not clear why the Y3+ doesn’t follow the heavies in our case. However, Y3+ differs from the lanthanide trivalent ions (Ln3+) in that Y3+ contains no f electrons while most of the Ln3+ do. Perhaps this could account for the observation you made.
    Thanks again for your interest in our work.
    Reed

    May 16, 2015 - 11:15 PM

  • David Covell

    Dr Izatt – Thank you very much for writing this post/article and including so many peer reviewed scientific papers references relative to the separation process and other green efforts in REE recovery. It was kind of you to take the time to share your knowledge and experiences in this endeavor. Most of us here recognize this recent accomplishment as a continuation along the path of eventual success and watch with anticipation of more news of further successes. Congrats to you and your team at IBC and Ucore and we do NOT wish malice or failure on other methods or companies trying to solution these problems! PS/ My high school chem teacher at Box Elder HS in Brigham City UT was a local peach tree farmer who learned his chemistry from from the back of organic fertilizer bags! He also taught organic chem our Sr year. I still remember the separation labs! LOL Pappy (UofU grad)

    May 17, 2015 - 5:10 PM

  • Cem Ozyakup

    Hi Dr Izatt,

    I’ve read your article with great interest. Thank you very much.

    You explain how scaling up the separation of REE could be much easier than the PGM which are already produced with this method. This sounds very promising and almost like a done deal.

    I have no idea whatsoever why the price of PGM are at the level they are, (about thousand times higher than the average basket price for REE). The price is of course is a result of many contributing factors, most of which would or could be understandably beyond your area of knowledge. But if you can illuminate us a little, at least on the percentage / contribution of the MRT separation costs to these prices, which I feel you are one of the best person to ask, I’d really appreciate it.

    I assume these are rather small (?), thus you are confident that the MRT separated REE would be competitive with the current (SX/IX) REE prices, as you have not even raised this as a concern? Or is it that you trust the easier nature of REE separation by MRT (compared to PGM) would bring them down?

    Thank you and regards
    Cem Ozyakup

    May 18, 2015 - 8:04 PM

  • Investor

    Dr Izatt,
    Great article.
    Were you able to achieve required purity for individual rare earths, e.g. 4N or 5N? Is there any recovery losses when separating individual rare earths? Any indicative OPEX comparison with SX, e.g. for SX to separate individual rare earths (an achieve the required purity) it is well accepted that the cost in western world is between USD $15-20/kg of REO. Many experts have commented on this figure. What is the cost/kg REO using MRT?

    May 18, 2015 - 10:11 PM

  • Dr. Reed M. Izatt

    Dear Investor:

    Thank you for your interest in our work and for your comment. As stated in the article, our intent was to separate individual rare earth metals at the >99% level. We accomplished this. Greater purities can be achieved by using additional stages. I do note, however, that our objective is not to just get higher purity for the sake of higher purity. We take a commercial approach. We survey customers and determine what they need. We assess what impurities are important. We then deliver the products our customers need. Recovery of the REE from the PLS was quantitative (100%) in our test work.

    Your question about opex raises significant issues. In comparing opex costs for a clean and efficient technology, such as MRT, with a dirty and inefficient technology, such as SX, a number of factors must be considered that are not incorporated in generally quoted opex figures. These include: (i) the cost of not recovering all of the REE (low recovery rate), (ii) the cost of pollution associated with the process, (iii) the cost of financing in-process metals (i.e., the holding or inventory cost of metal while it is being processed), (iv) the costs associated with excessive capital equipment and large real estate requirements due to process inefficiencies, and (v) the cost associated with the risks of using an inherently flammable separation method (e.g., Anglo American, South Africa, has experienced shut downs of their PGM refining plant due to their SX system catching fire). To arrive at the true cost of a process, the costs for each of these factors must be taken into account and distributed over each kilogram of REE produced. Such an assessment shows that these factors overwhelm the direct materials and labor costs associated with the processing of the REE.

    To illustrate the point, I would like to focus on perhaps the largest contributor to the cost of producing the REE that is largely, if not entirely, unaccounted for in typical assessments of operating costs – the environmental costs. With MRT, as contrasted with SX, waste generation is minimal, so the opex costs from this source are also minimal. In SX, waste generation is large, but is only partly, if at all, included in the opex costs. The failure to incorporate the waste costs associated with SX in the processing cost of a kilogram of REE is known as a ‘negative externality’, wherein a cost is incurred, but that cost is borne not by the party generating the cost but by an unaffiliated party or parties, such as society at large. Such costs are not incorporated in the cost of the associated manufacturing process. Pollution costs, which are borne by society, are a text book example of this concept of negative externality. The negative externality associated with SX is seen in China where generation of wastes is very large, with consequent widespread damage to the environment and human health. These costs cannot be determined with any degree of accuracy, but they are large and very real, and they are borne largely by society, not by the companies that generate the waste. Yang, et al. have given a graphic description of these costs in the South China region where 80% of the global supply of heavy rare earths is mined from ion-adsorption clays (Yang, X.J., et al., Environmental Development (2013) 8, 131-136.) I quote one passage from the Yang, et al. paper: “The rare earth mining in Ganzhou’s region has left 302 abandoned mines and 191 million tons of tailings and the area of destroyed forests increased from 23 km2 in 2000 to 153 km2 in 2010 [at this point a reference is given to an available satellite image.] The reclamation for Ganzhou’s rare earth mine-sites was estimated at least at 38 billion RMB (approximately U.S. $ 5.8 billion.) This does not account for human health and environmental costs.” It is evident that the environmental costs of using SX are largely not accounted for in the traditional calculation of process operating costs. There are also a number of other costs, associated with the factors I listed above, that are not incorporated in the stated opex of producing a kilogram of REE. In comparing MRT to SX on each of these factors, it is clear that the opex associated with MRT is a small fraction of the costs associated with SX.

    Reed M. Izatt

    May 20, 2015 - 1:51 PM

  • Dr. Reed M. Izatt

    Hi Cem Ozyakup:

    I appreciate your comments. As you point out, many factors determine the market value of a metal. An important factor in comparing rare earth metals with platinum group metals is their relative abundance in the Earth’s crust. I have a plot of this abundance in my article Chem. Soc. Rev. (2014) 43, 2451-2475. In this plot the rare earth metals are seen to be about as abundant as major metals, such as Cu, Zn, and Ni. On the other hand, the platinum group metals are the rarest metals in the Earth’s crust, about one thousand times less abundant. The reason we have adequate supplies of these precious metals, including gold, is that geochemical processes have concentrated them and we have been able to locate them by geological exploration. The major ores containing platinum group metals are located in only a few nations. On the other hand, rare earth metals are quite abundant, but are difficult to recover.

    My views on the comparisons of opex costs for production of rare earth metals by MRT and SX are included in my answer on this site to another question by Investor. A short answer is that MRT’s opex costs are much lower than those of SX/IX for separation and recovery of rare earth metals.

    Reed M. Izatt

    May 20, 2015 - 8:37 PM

  • Investor

    Dr Izatt,
    Thank you on this detailed response. Mining of rare earth containing ore, their beneficiation, hydrometallurgical processing to extract mineral value and subsequently concentrate rare earths as carbonates or oxalates followed by SX to obtain individual rare earth oxides are different stages of the processing. Environmental pollution you are quoting above is during in-situ leaching (Jack and Tantalus know all about it) and during hydrometallurgical extraction of rare earths as either carbonates or oxalates. SX is the step that follows. This is done on different site or location and in most cases by another company which has different cost structure. One such responsible SX separator is in the middle of France. Their name is Solvay. They have been doing it for over 40 years. They neutralise all their waste and dispose it off in accordance to modern environmental regulations. Another responsible SX separator is in Japan. Their name is ShinEtsu. The cost I quoted above US$15-20/kg REO is for Japanese operation. So I ask the same question again, how does MRT compares with western world SX not Chinese?

    May 20, 2015 - 8:52 PM

  • Dr. Reed M. Izatt

    Investor:
    Thank you for your comment. I do observe that the Japanese and French companies use SX which has the inherent limitations I have described earlier for making separations and the waste generation problem for solvents and other chemicals mentioned by you. The five parameters I listed still apply. The key point is that SX is not highly selective, is inefficient and has very high capital and operating costs. I am unable to answer your question about how the US$ 15-20/kg REO for the Japanese operation compares to that of MRT because that number is undefined as to what it includes and excludes. I do not have information on the basis for the cost per kg REO by the Japanese company, without which I would be unable to make a true comparison. For example, you mention the waste costs, are these included in the number? What is the capex number and over what period is it amortized? What is the REE recovery rate? What are the overhead costs including real estate and building costs and how are they distributed on a per kilogram REE basis? What is the contribution of the REE inventory cost (metal in process)? What has the company done to account for the inherent risks of using SX such as the fire risk? How have each of these parameters been accounted for in the number you quoted? I can tell you that MRT has replaced, or been installed instead of, both SX and IX in a number of commercial separation operations. The relative economics of MRT versus these other methods has been judged by the marketplace to be much better for the reasons I have given. One of the core principles of a green chemistry operation is to avoid the use of solvents. The use of solvents not only requires very high expenditures of capex and opex funds but it is inherently bad for the environment and exposes workers to unnecessary risks. These expenditures increase when, in addition to the use of solvents, the separation process is not highly selective. As I have pointed out, due to its high selectivity, MRT achieves comparable separation purities with fewer stages. This results in much faster throughputs and smaller equipment footprints. MRT recovers all of the REE and has minimal waste generation since it does not use solvents and is a much simpler system.

    Reed M. Izatt

    May 21, 2015 - 1:39 PM

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  • Cem Ozyakup

    Dr Izatt, thank you for your informative answers. Your rational on the overall costs are clear. Unfortunately (or fortunately for some) not all the costs you mention are born in the price of products, in most sectors, as in REE. The price of furniture made from the rain-forest does not include the cost of global warming; neither the price of cigarettes covers the disaster they cause to public health. The question is, could these companies (or Ucore using MRT) still be in business if they had practices which avoided these costs, or included them in their prices…
    Cem Ozyakup

    May 27, 2015 - 8:30 AM

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