At the forefront of the movement to create a sustainable and resilient supply of rare earths is a group of nations with projects to extract the minerals from mining waste and by-products. Sweden, South Africa, and Australia have all turned piles of mine waste into sources of rare earths, an important element of many products such as electric cars, wind turbines, and permanent magnet motors.
Demand for the minerals has been high and is expected to continue to grow as countries work towards their net-zero carbon goals. To reduce dependence on China for rare earths, a country that produces 90% of the world’s refined supply, six projects outside of China are being developed. These projects are estimated to produce over 10,000 metric tonnes of neodymium and praseodymium oxide (NdPr) by 2027 and can potentially cut the expected deficit of such minerals by up to 50% according to analysis by Adamas Intelligence and Reuters.
One of the projects is operated by Swedish iron ore miner, LKAB. Located in the northern part of the country, the company will extract phosphorus, fluorine, gypsum, and rare earths from byproducts of the two existing iron ore mines. It is estimated to begin operations in just four years’ time, whereas the new mine planned for Europe’s largest known rare earth oxide deposit would take 15 years to launch.
In South Africa, Rainbow Minerals is preparing to process phosphate mining waste using a newer method of ion chromatography. Meanwhile, in Australia, mineral sands producer Iluka is in the midst of constructing a rare earths refinery that by 2025 can process 1 million tonnes of stockpiles by-products. The entire project is expected to cost between $677 and $800 million, and is being supplemented by government loans.
A number of technologies have been developed to facilitate these projects, such as the one developed by US-based K-Technologies or the one developed by scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and used by Phoenix Tailings to separate rare earths with low environmental footprints, which is competitive with Chinese prices.
One company making major moves in the energy transition metals space is Mercuria. It holds a stake in Norway-based REEtec, whose technology is also being used by LKAB as a low-environmental footprint process for rare earths extraction.
The golden opportunity for these projects to cut the supply deficit of rare earths and contribute towards the net-zero carbon target, has been nurtured by the continually climbing prices of rare earths. NdPr alloy prices in China, although lower than its peak last year, have still doubled in the past three years.
Overall, these six projects are presenting an opportunity for readily accessible sources of supply that could potentially revolutionize the rare earths industry.