Lifton on Ucore’s MRT: Rare earth technology officially overtakes geology
MRT Revolution, No; Evolution, Yes.
Science and technology are not the same thing. Technology is the application of science for practical purposes the main one of which is to reduce the need for human labor and the second most important of which is to perform functions impossible for a human being without the use of the technology.
In the late 1930s scientists theorized that if one could separate from “naturally “ occurring uranium the isotope U-235, which is present in natural ores at a concentration of 0.7% of the total of U-238, then one could build a device using a critical mass and geometry from the U-235 that would release an enormous amount of energy in a very short time. Further it was realized the simple process of dividing the calculated “critical mass” of such material into, for example, two halves would create a method of utilizing such a material in a bomb, where an irreversible and self-sustaining “fission” of the U-235 could be initiated by merely uniting the divided halves into a critical mass.
All of the above was theory, supported by key laboratory sized experiments and by novel explanations of experiments for which there was no better explanation.
The fly in the ointment was that to “prove” the theory that U-235 could act in such a way when in a critical mass would require a focused massive and unique industrial effort to apply known and theoretical techniques for the separation of materials differing by tint amounts of “weight” in relatively huge amounts.
Within a year of the “discovery” of nuclear fission the US President assembled a committee of the nations best scientists to address the technological feasibility of trying to produce enough U-235 (and even more remotely to try to produce enough of element 94, plutonium) to test the theory of making a bomb utilizing the self-sustaining fission of a critical mass of U-235 (or Pu-239).
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The greatest engineering project in the history of the world began under the code name of “the Manhattan Project.” the purpose of which was to produce both U-235 and plutonium in quantities sufficient to manufacture “atomic bombs” and then to test them to see if they worked, and even if so, if they could be controlled and mass produced.
Only the government of a wealthy nation with a large industrial manufacturing base could even possibly undertake such a task.
The successful completion of the Manhattan Project, the most expensive manufacturing project ever undertaken, is the reason we live today in a world dominated by labor saving and mind enhancing technologies allowing easy mass communication, computation, and the production of non-fossil fuel energy.
It is also the reason that the pure sciences now take second place in the public mind to technologies. It is no longer Albert Einstein who is lionized but rarer it is Steve Jobs; it should be Jonas Salk, but to be fair, he did not mass produce the polio vaccine; he created it.
Nobel prizes tend to be given not to theoreticians but to those who prove theories by experiment-this is science in its purest form.
Molecular Recognition Technology is the commercialization of pure scientific research originally done in France and America by Prof Jean-Marie Lehn, who was awarded the 1987 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his pioneering work over the previous 25 years in synthesizing what he calls “cryptans,” a type of host-guest molecular assembly created by intermolecular interactions. which others call a class of super-molecules. and call their study Supramolecular chemistry. Professor Lehn’s work was in synthetic organic chemistry; he was trying to, and did, create molecules that could selectively abstract , and in that way concentrate, mixtures of organic molecules differing by just a few atoms-even by just ONE-into their individual molecular components. He literally crafted molecules known as “crown ethers” that had geometries such that one and only one molecule of a particular shape could fit in a “cage” that was part of the molecule. Once the cages were filled the capturing molecules could be isolated and the caged molecules freed (excuse the anthropomorphizing of the process, but it is the easiest way to visualize it).
Professor Lehn’s work has had wide application in synthetic organic chemistry in general and in pharmaceutical research in particular where the difference between two nearly identical molecules may be the key to their biological activity.
The selective extraction of individual atomic species of inorganic materials by supramolecular chemistry was at first only of interest to those looking at cleaning toxins from living matter and separating small amounts of desired specific molecules from previously unresolvable mixes. Certainly there was little interest at first from the hydrometallurgists who then as now used nineteenth century techniques and technologies to extract and purify base metals from their ores. The cyanide extraction of gold and silver, for example, is nearly 200 years old. The electrolytic refining of copper and aluminum are both conducted today in almost the same way they were first done in the late nineteenth century.
Rare earth extraction from ores (colloquially known as “cracking”) by “common” reagents such as sulphuric acid, hydrochloric acid, nitric acid; caustic soda (sodium hydroxide), and caustic potash (potassium hydroxide), or mixtures or sequences of them is the same methodology and uses the same reagents that have been used for nearly two centuries. There has been a change though in the technology of separating them since the early twentieth century.
The separation of closely related metallic ions as well as of closely related organic chemicals was done at the end of the nineteenth century by a technique called fractional crystallization. Madame Curie recrystallized the process leach solution she had extracted from pitchblende, an ore of Uranium, some 4000 times over the period of several months. Each time the slightly more soluble (than uranium) radium salt was left in the supernatant liquid and after 4,000 recrystallizations she was able to produce a single gram of a radium salt from several tons of pitchblende.
A similar methodology was used to separate the rare earths from each other after the invention of spectroscopy showed that rare earth “ores” were in fact always mixtures of many “rare earths.” The problem was that the chemical properties of these elements was determined by a unique electronic configuration, which was in fact the reason that they are always found together in nature. It was however simply practical bench chemistry without much theory involved that brought about their separation by fractional crystallization. Guessing that the rare earths had to have some differences chemically early researchers just kept reiterating fractional crystallization until in many cases they could after many many iterations identify different rare earths. Early (late nineteenth century) emission spectroscopy enabled chemists to determine when they had different rare earths and when no further recrystallizations made a difference. This was hammer and tongs chemistry.
In the 1920s a technique called solvent extraction was applied to the separation of neodymium from the other rare earths and it worked. SX was faster and cheaper than fractional crystallization and so a technology came into existence that could be used commercially if there were a demand driver.
This driver occurred in the early 1960s when a demand for pure europium for making cathodoluminescent phosphors for true color television displays came into being. Molycorp in the USA and Rhone-Poulenc in France respond to the challenge by commissioning the first commercial scale SX plants for separating the rare earths from one another. Molycorp chose to focus on producing only europium, present as 0.1% of the total rare earths in its large bastnaesite deposit at Mountain Pass, California. Rhone Poulenc decided to engineer an SX system that could separate all of the rare earths from each other. The world’s first SX systems for large scale production of separated rare earths this were then built at Mountain Pass, California and at Larochelle, France.
When China found that it had large deposits of bastnaesite in Inner Mongolia, in the 1970s, it went forward with developing a domestic rare earth industry using the then best practices technology, SX.
In the 1980s a demand for the mid-range rare earths, samarium, europium, and gadolinium, was expanded by successful magnet developmental research to include the heavy rare earth, dysprosium, as a modifier of the properties of the neodymium-iron-boron permanent magnet then going into wide-spread use as a replacement for iron based magnets. At the same time the HREEs, terbium and erbium, were in demand for specialty alloys, phosphors, and fiber optics.
At this time the Chinese had a bit of luck. There were found in Sichuan Province (southern China) deposits that came to be known as ionic adsorption clays, which contained heavy rare earths solubilized by simple aqueous solutions of ammonium sulphate, a readily available chemical . Although these deposits were very low “grade” on the order of 50-500 ppm they were typically of more than 2/3 HREEs and contained very little thorium or uranium.
Since the production of rare earth enabled components that required HREEs was rapidly moving to China by the late 1980s there was then no incentive to look for HREE deposits outside of China.
That situation only began to change 20 years later when after for all intents and purposes the global production of all rare earths was done in China. There had been outside of China almost no research whatsoever in the separation of the rare earths during that time nor was there any exploration for HREE, or even, LREE deposits outside of China.
Around 2007 that situation began to change. It was clear by then that many militarily critical components of modern weapons systems and their delivery vehicles were critically dependent on rare earth enabled components and devices. Both exploration for rare earths deposits outside of China and the study of separation technologies for processing rare earth ores were revived. The exploration by “juniors” (i.e., exploration or not yet producing) got all of the press attention, but that didn’t mean that there was no separation technology research and development.
In fact IBC Advanced Technologies founded in the 1980s by Reed Izzat, Phd, a former DuPont research scientist who had worked with MRT for 25 years or more, had been successfully applying MRT to the recovery and separation of rare metals from low grade ores, residues, and scrap. He asked his staff to look at the problems of separating the rare earths from the radioactive elements with which they are found as well as from the elements that interfere with SX, such as iron, aluminum, P (as PO4), and F (as F-). IBC AT then decided to look at the separation of the rare earths individually and their purification by the unitary technique of MRT.
UCORE Rare Metals Inc. (TSXV: UCU | OTCQX: UURAF) approached IBC AT after its CEO, Jim Mackenzie, heard about their work with rare earths. By the fall of 2014 IBC AT had spent more than a year working with the UCORE mineralogy at Bokan Mountain.
On Monday morning, March 2, 2015, I attended a press conference in Toronto at which Jim Mackenzie displayed a glass vial in which were 5-10 grams of 99.9% dysprosium carbonate produced using MRT on a process leach solution created from ore produced at UCORE’s Bokan Mountain deposits.
I believe that this is the first pure dysprosium compound produced in North America using American technology from American ore. The press conference was told that in fact all of the rare earths present in the Bokan Mountain ore had been individually separated by IBC AT at Bench Scale using MRT with proprietary ligands developed by the company and that the ligands can be and are produced in large volumes for commercial applications by the company.
The next step for UCORE is the commissioning of a pilot plant to produce separated rare earths in metric tons per annum. When that is accomplished and when the economics are determined for a full scale multi thousand ton MRT processing/separation plant then, if the economics work against SX, UCORE will be well on the way to becoming a domestic American producer of fine rare earth chemicals from its hard rock deposit competitively with Chinese production from its ionic adsorption clays.
I am following not only MRT closely but also CIC/CIX and accelerated SX as the technologies of choice for the separation of HREEs individually. One of them or all of them or all of them may become the technology of choice depending on the type of ore being processed. That is for overall economics to decide. At the moment MRT is ahead.
The Chinese government’s moves, announced as finalized last week and reported yesterday by Hongpo on InvestorIntel, to completely restructure the Chinese rare earth industry mean to me that the future of the security of supply of HREEs as raw materials from China to the outside world is coming to an end, or is at an end.
Fortunately the North American, Canadian, and European hydrometallurgical industries are up to the challenge as the development of MRT, CIC/CIX, accelerated SX, and perhaps even of electrolytic and chromatographic technologies attest.
Watch out for Chinese rare earth industry players; they are coming to North America, Europe, and Australia. They will be in the market not only for rare earths but also for rare earth separation technologies.
And keep your eye on those companies already ahead of the pack in utilizing either the newer or the improved traditional separation technologies. Consolidation is in the air, and at current share prices, UCORE Rare Metals Inc., Texas Rare Earth Resources Corp. and Rare Element Resources Ltd. are a bargain in the USA markets.
Its all about economics, not science, nor technology.
[Note from the Publisher: Special thanks to the Photographer Byron Fillmore of Ucore Rare Metals Inc. All of the companies that Mr. Jack Lifton consults for, including Advisory Board and Board positions are listed below in his biography.]
Jack Lifton is the CEO of Jack Lifton, LLC and is a consultant, author, and lecturer on the market fundamentals of technology metals. “Technology metals” ... <Read more about Jack Lifton>