Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 1 March 2021


North American groups seek to break China’s grip on rare earths supply

Neo Performance Materials of Canada and Energy Fuels of the US have found a way to safely produce rare earths from radioactive monazite sands  © REUTERS

Three North American companies are setting up a rare earths supply chain to reduce dependence on China for the vital metals used in weapons, electric vehicles and other advanced technology.

Neo Performance Materials of Canada and Energy Fuels of the US have found an efficient way to safely produce rare earths from radioactive monazite sands. The sands, a mining byproduct, will be supplied by US-based chemicals group Chemours. 

China controls about 80 per cent of rare earths supply and has been considering an export ban, leading to fears it will gain a military and commercial advantage over the US and Europe. 

Most western rare earth companies have avoided monazite, produced from mining for zircon, titanium and other minerals, because of its high radioactive content.

But Energy Fuels, which already processes uranium, has developed a method of extracting the radioactive element from the monazite to use in nuclear fuel, turning a waste product into a revenue earner.

“It is a significant step towards building an integrated supply chain for rare earths in the US and Europe,” Mark Chalmers, president and chief executive of Energy Fuels, told the Financial Times. He said the company had only needed to invest $2m in its White Mesa Mill in Utah but could spend more to become a processor of rare earths.

Constantine Karayannopoulos, Neo’s chief executive, said the US’s large stocks of monazite were the answer to soaring demand for rare earths. 

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Monazite contains about 50 per cent rare earths, far higher than other ores, as well as 0.2-0.3 per cent natural uranium. It also contains 15 of the 17 rare earths.

“We clearly see double-digit annual growth in demand [for rare earths] over the next five to 10 years,” Karayannopoulos said. “Sales of electric vehicles in Europe are now higher than in China. Our Silmet facility in Estonia is only operating at 75 per cent capacity and we need more feedstock.”

From March or April, Energy Fuels will send the deradiated mixed rare earth carbonate to the Silmet separation plant, the only one in Europe.

Neo will produce separated rare earth materials used in the permanent magnets needed in electric cars and other advanced materials.

Fighter jets such as the F-35 rely heavily on rare earths. A Congressional Research Service report found that Lockheed Martin aircraft contained 417kg of rare-earth materials and a nuclear submarine more than 4 tonnes.

The US government has prioritised an indigenous supply chain to reduce dependence on China. President Joe Biden last month ordered a review of the vulnerability of key supply chains including rare earths and the government has subsidised some miners and processing companies.

Chemours will supply Energy Fuels with at least 2,500 tons a year of monazite ore and will send 840 tonnes of rare earths to Estonia.

Energy Fuels eventually aims to process 15,000 tons of monazite a year, which would meet half the rare earth needs of the US. 

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