Transforming Waste to Rare Earths – Projects and Strategies

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Rare earths are critical minerals in the production of electric cars and wind turbines as green energy sources, but these minerals are mostly supplied by China where production is highly concentrated. To combat the shortage of these minerals, six projects outside of China are looking to extract them from waste and by-products. This article outlines the specifics of these projects and the companies behind them, noted in order of the output of neodymium and praseodymium- the rare earths most in demand.

Iluka Resources Ltd (ILU.AX) from Australia has completed its two processing plants, and is expected to launch its own refinery by 2025, becoming Australia’s first rare earth separation plant. This refinery is said to produce an average of 2,700 tonnes a year of NdPr oxides. Iluka primarily gets its feedstock from its massive stockpile at Eneabba in Western Australia, that has been growing since the 1990s.

The same technology of extracting rare earths from old mine tailings is being put in use by a privately held U.S. company, Phoenix Tailings, who is expected to produce an average of 2,589 tonnes of NdPr oxides from a former iron ore mine in New York. Energy Fuels removes the uranium from the monazite and sends the rare earth carbonate to the separation plant owned by Neo Performance Materials (NEO.TO) in Estonia. It is planned that Energy Fuel’s own separation plant will be open for operations by 2024 and will produce between 1,500 to 3,000 tonnes a year of NdPr oxides.

Rainbow Rare Earths Ltd (RBWR.L) from South Africa is looking to reprocess the stockpiles left over from phosphate mining that has been conducted since the 1950s at Phalaborwa. This initiative is done in collaboration with the U.S. firm K-Technologies in order to produce separated rare earth oxides. It is estimated that the company will be able to produce an average of 1,850 tonnes a year of NdPr oxides by 2026. Furthermore, Rainbow has already made an offtake agreement with China’s Shenghe which has promised to purchase 6,400 tonnes a year of rare earth mineral concentrate. As for further plans, VHM is looking to build its own refinery.

LKAB, a state-owned Swedish iron ore producer, has devised a plan to extract rare earths from the waste material extracted from two existing mines that is currently stored in tailing dams. This material is sent to be processed in a plant at the site of the mine, as well as another plant in an industrial park, before shipping it to a refinery from REEtec in Norway. LKAB’s plan is to produce 2,000 tonnes a year of Treos from 2027, which should contain about 400 tonnes of NdPr oxides.

These initiatives holds potential to have a significant impact on the rare earths industry, as they look to tap into new sources that might help to avert the shortage expected in coming years. The parties behind this are all committed to the goal of transforming waste products and by-products into rare earths, and all of these projects should be launching their operations by the 2026.