Ucore brews rare earths espresso with Molecular Recognition Technology: greens up, speeds up rare earths purification
On November 12, 2014 Ucore Rare Metals Inc. (TSXV: UCU | OTCQX: UURAF) (“Ucore”) announced a development with disruptive potential from environmental and economic standpoints. Ucore created purified rare earth extracts after its proprietary flow chart combined with Molecular Recognition Technology (MRT) from a leach solution from the company’s flagship project, the Bokan Mountain Project.
MRT is based on the use of proprietary “sticky” resins (IBC’s SuperLig®) that are specific to rare earth elements. Pregnant liquors loaded with rare earths are purified through columns packed with the specialty resin, which picks up the rare earth elements in a way that is almost as specific as in antigen-antibody complexes. These columns are more or less like the business end of an espresso machine packed with coffee grind, except that what flows through is the waste rather the coveted caffeinated brew. To get to the brew with MRT technology, you need to run through a mild acid solution that frees the rare earths from the resins. Biscotti anyone? Or perhaps a rare earth cake?
While this is exciting for generating rare earth concentrates, the current results are derived from bench scale tests and prudence dictates that there is a need to tests the technology at the pilot scale.
But the technology also offers huge potential benefits for the purification of individual rare earths.
Rare earth producers usually follow almost identical principles or schemes when selecting solvent extraction circuits to separate rare earths from each other. These make up to hundreds of stages of mixers and settlers to separate all the individual rare earths in a feedstock. This takes up a lot of space, workers, solvents, columns, piping, and generates a lot of wastewater and emissions. This is also the reason why recycling rare earths is problematic.
As far as rare earths are concerned MRT’s most compelling point of difference is that instead of taking three football fields to purify rare earths, it would need a footprint perhaps a hundred times smaller, depending on the application. Because of this, investors should watch company announcements to understand how a scaled up commercial MRT project would pare down the capital and operating costs of rare earth separation and recycling processes.
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MRT is not unique to rare earths elements (REEs). It has been proven for over 25 years of commercial applications for all kinds of hydrometallurgical processes. For example it is being used commercially for the separation of the six platinum-group metals (PGM’s) comprised of ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium, and platinum. They have similar physical and chemical properties, and tend to occur together in the same mineral deposits. In this respect, PGM’s represent a similar separation problem to that of rare earths. Interestingly, IBC’s MRT circuits are already being used at the world’s largest copper refineries to extract valuable PGM’s from tailings output (including the massive Asarco facility in Amarillo, Texas). Such real world installations speak for the adoption of MRT’s technology in the rare earth space.
MRT’s environmental benefits also create another strong point of difference with current technologies by preventing fugitive emissions of volatile organic solvents and reducing significantly the amount of water and energy used.
The oft-cited reason for the hegemony of Chinese interests is the lack of environmental regulations regarding rare earth projects. In December 2012, the EPA published a damning report on the environmental footprint of rare earths (click here). For example, the REE separation and refining known as saponification had been used in China until recently, generating harmful wastewater. It was estimated that in 2005 alone, the process generated 20,000 to 25,000 tons of wastewater, with total ammonia nitrogen concentrations ranging from 300 mg/L to 5000 mg/L. At extreme ammonia levels, fish may experience convulsions, coma, and death. Experiments have shown that the lethal concentration for a variety of fish species ranges from 0.2 to 2.0 mg/l. Trout appear to be the most susceptible of these fish and carp the least susceptible. And so the dysprosium used in wind turbines and hybrid cars made a lot of fish go bellow up, a problem that MRT should resolve.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Ucore’s November 12, 2014 announcement is that the company has successfully generated a very high purity heavy REE concentrate without the use of traditional saponification or solvent extraction techniques. Ucore claims that this is quite likely the highest purity HREE (heavy rare earth elements) mixed ever generated outside of China, using non-Chinese feedstock, and most importantly, using much more environmentally friendly refining technologies than are currently the norm.
Ucore also believes that MRT has the potential to generate not just a high purity mixed concentrate, but individual rare earth oxides and chlorides as well (otherwise known as REE “salts”). This is a potential break through: the building of a better “mouse trap” for REE purification, independent of solvent extraction and saponification techniques which are too costly (both environmentally and financially) to be used outside of China.
Ucore has already proven resilient in an increasingly narrow field of potential heavy REE producers. The company claims to have the highest grade HREE deposit on US soil, and a timeline to production that’s now one of the shortest in the sector (with an SOP date of 2017). In the future months, investors should be watching the fully loaded production costs of rare earths from Ucore to understand whether MRT would advance the Bokan Mountain Project.
Dr. Luc C. Duchesne is a Speaker and Author with a PhD in Biochemistry. With three decades of scientific and business experience, he has published ... <Read more about Dr. Luc Duchesne>