The Rare Earths MMI (Monthly MetalMiner Index for rare earth metals) extended its decline in July, dropping another 2.8%. This is a significant move for rare earths prices, and reinforces the subtle downtrend that began back in April. Now more than ever, countries are frantically searching for ways to separate their rare earths supply from China.
Rare Earth Metals: All Eyes Are on Turkey’s “Big Find”
Back on July 7th, Turkey reported that it had discovered the second largest reserve of rare earth metals in the world. The site, located in central Anatolia, is estimated to contain 694 million tons of rare earth reserves. This would put it just 106 million tons behind the Bayan Obo deposit in Northern China. If true, this would represent a supply shift that could impact rare earths prices significantly. Of the 17 elements under the “rare earths” category, the forthcoming Anatolia site will produce ten. According to Fatih Donmez, the country’s Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, Turkey will soon be able to process 570,000 tons of rare earths each year. Hopefully, the pilot plant will be operational by the end of 2022 and provide a significant supply of rare earth metals.
While the prospect of breaking China’s pseudo-monopoly over rare earths proves tempting, the jury is still out on the quality of the Anatolia deposit. According to Jon Hykawy, the President of Stormcrow Capital, “the old adage that ‘grade is king’ in mining still holds. If this Turkish discovery is gigantic, but of very low grade, well, we usually call material like that ‘dirt.'”
Concerns also abound as to whether or not Turkey is up to the challenges of mining and refining the minerals on a large scale. For now, the marketplace is waiting with baited breath.
£150 Million Rare Earths Plant in the UK Draws Criticism
Earlier this month, rare earths company Pensanna broke ground on the UK’s first ever rare earths processing plant. The project began as part of an overarching strategy to reduce China’s dominance over the rare earths marketplace. According to officials behind the £150 Million facility, the movement also saw renewed interest following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
UK Secretary of State Kwasi Kwareng took the time to remind his fellow Europeans of the need to ween themselves off the Chinese teet. “Critical minerals will become even more important as we seek to bolster our energy security and domestic industrial resilience,” he said. He later added that the strategy would also “bolster our resilience to market shocks and geopolitical events.”
That said, a recent Financial Times article revealed that some industry experts are unhappy with the amount of disclosure around the project. For instance, little is known at this point about executive pay, resource quality, and the capacity of the site to meet its stated goals. As of this writing, the facility is supposed to produce 12,500 tons of separated rare earths along and 5% of global magnet metals by 2024.
However, Pensana’s plan hinges on sourcing rare earth oxides from its Longonjo site in Angola, which has only just broken ground. This fact is compounded by fears that processing the Angolan ore will generate high amounts of thorium, which is radioactive. In short: the market is crossing its fingers, but not exactly optimistic.
North America Continues Strides Toward Rare Earth Independence
Last month, we reported extensively on the US’ dependence on Chinese rare earth supplies. A month earlier, we touched on the rare earth manufacturing facility set to be built in Stillwater, Oklahoma. At the time, the $100 million facility was primed to create 100+ jobs and help move the US towards a point of self-sufficiency. However, that plant isn’t scheduled to come online until 2023. And depending on who you ask, that amount of time could prove to be an eternity.
In the meantime, there’s good news coming out of Canada. Vital Metals, who owns the rare earths extraction facility in Saskatchewan, recently announced some promising test results. It seems the first feed of the DMS (dense media separation) unit at the site has revealed capabilities comparable to TREO grades seen in lab test work.
TREO Grade refers to “total rare earth oxide.” Essentially, Vital Metals’ plant is operating at an extraction efficiency (43.7%) very close to those achieved in lab conditions (44.6%). On top of that, the unit achieved 75.2% recovery during the test. This bodes very well for the site’s capacity estimates and for its ability to produce high-quality product.
According to Managing Director Geoff Atkins, “the fact that on the first run we hit the laboratory test grades for total rare earths with 75% recovery with low-grade feed material is above expectations.” Of course, the site plans to continue optimizing its processes. Still, these results represent a real shot in the arm for the facility’s overall potential.
By AG Metal MIner
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