NioCorp and scandium — walking the walk
When it comes to scandium, it seems to be have been a case of so many plans, so little scandium — quite a deal of talking the talk, not so much walking the walk.
Until now. It may be only at the bench-testing level, but NioCorp Developments Ltd. (TSX: NB | OTCQX: NIOBF | FSE: BR3) has produced the first sample of scandium material from its Elk Creek, Nebraska resource. So that’s a milestone, right? Especially given the tortuous road of the past decade when it comes to someone, somewhere actually delivering scandium after all the promises and plans.
“This may very well be the first scandium material made from a U.S. domestic in-situ mineral resource in decades,” said Mark A. Smith, Executive Chairman and CEO of NioCorp. “While this is not the final commercial-grade product we intend to make, this production marks a major milestone for the Elk Creek project.” NioCorp has the ambition to be “one of the largest producers of scandium in the world.” Just to put that in perspective, NioCorp has previously indicated it would be looking to produce 97 tonnes a year — that would be almost 10 times present world supply.
The scandium precipitate was produced through a process that, the company says, is a precursor to the commercial process that will make higher purity commercial grade scandium trioxide.
As NioCorp states, it is developing a superalloy materials project in southeast Nebraska that will produce niobium, scandium and titanium. Scandium can be combined with aluminium to make alloys with increased strength and improved resistance to corrosion.
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But let us look at the NioCorp achievement from two angles.
One is the history of U.S. scandium production. The archives of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency contain a 1993 update on scandium. “Although scandium was not mined domestically in 1993, scandium ore was intermittently recovered from tailings and concentrates as needed,” the EPA noted. Apparently at that time scandium concentrates previously produced in Utah and tailings previously generated by mining fluorite in Montana were available for processing to recover high purity scandium oxide.
In fact, the EPA lists nine companies as having been involved in scandium: these included Kennecott and its copper mine at Garfield, Utah, where scandium was available as a byproduct from processing uranium, and the Climax mine in Colorado where scandium was a byproduct of its molybdenum operation. The others were involved in the refining end.
So the NioCorp development does show it’s been some time between drinks on the U.S. scandium front.
The second point is that, once you begin delving back into the archives, you find how many false starts there have been with scandium.
In 1998 an Australian junior Uranium Australia (no longer with us) claimed it had found enough scandium in New South Wales to supply the world for 40,000 years at the then present rate of consumption. (NSW is back on the scandium map with three projects being progressed.)
More recently, Metallica Minerals tried to get scandium going in Queensland, but that turned out to be too hard. In 2013 Sumitomo announced plans to extract scandium from its processing plant at a nickel-cobalt project in the Philippines. I cannot find any further announcements on that, but one recent Australian report stated that 10kg a month of scandium was being produced in the Philippines without naming the company, but it sounds like the Sumitomo project. There have also been plans in Japan to extract the metal from residues of titanium dioxide processing, and in Russia from the red mud left after alumina processing.
In 2013 a meeting of the American Geological Union heard a presentation about research in the Arctic Ocean that had discovered nodules and crusts enriched with scandium, although producing it in Nebraska might involve simpler logistics.
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