RER processing innovations could see separation facility built locally

New technology will produce 97% pure rare earth concentrate free from thorium

By Sarah Pridgeon

Rare Element Resources has applied for a utility patent on the thorium extraction technology designed for the Bear Lodge Rare Earth Project. As an ever-increasing number of bespoke processes for cost saving and purity improvement are incorporated into the plan, talk within the company has turned to the prospect of a local separation facility.

“This patent is for a process that we developed in-house to remove thorium. What’s important about the product is that the potential consumers of our product have a limit of radionuclide activity,” says Jaye Pickarts, COO.

“We have a little bit of thorium and a little bit of uranium and our customers’ limits and specifications are essentially zero or close to it – they want a clean product.”

The new patent will pair with an existing patent that was filed almost year ago for the overall extraction process that has been developed at the pilot plant. Uranium and thorium are present at every rare earth mine, but the quantities are dependent on the geology of the deposit.

As every deposit is different, the process to remove these byproducts is also different for every mining project. RER’s process has been designed specifically for the Bear Lodge deposit.

“We’re lucky we don’t have a whole lot [of thorium and uranium], but we have some. There are known methods for removal but they’re more expensive, so we developed our own process…that’s more cost effective,” Pickarts continues.

“Because it’s novel, we went ahead and patented it – more to protect our right to use it as opposed to selling technology. That’s not what we do, we’re a mining company.”

RER is now able to produce a 97 percent bulk rare earth concentrate that is free from thorium and uranium, which opens some new possibilities – including the company’s own separation facility. The further the company can take its product from the raw rare earth ore, the bigger the potential rewards.

“It’s a highly valuable material and also lends itself to being easily separated, which is the next logical step. We have concentrate containing 15 of the rare earth elements and the next step down the stream is to separate those individual elements,” Pickarts explains.

“Because it’s so pure, we’re actually looking at doing that ourselves. We’re starting some studies now to look at the possibility of constructing our own separation facility down the road – that would be after maybe a few years of running the plant and getting some cash flow.”

Could the separation facility also find a home in Upton?

“We’re looking for logical sites to put it. [Upton] would be an advantage because there’s already infrastructure there, but it’s dependent on a lot of things: logistics, where the customers are and so on,” Pickarts nods.

“We hope that it’s economic. We’re looking at test work now to see what’s required to do the separation part of it and then we have a long way to go – but as a company we’ve at least decided to go ahead and start those studies.”

The separated elements are used to make alloys for magnets, phosphors for lighting and other products. These are then sold to large corporations such as Apple for use in their manufactured goods.

“The further downstream you go, the more valuable the product is and the higher the margin,” says Pickarts, explaining that, initially at least, the company will sell the pure concentrate.

“We’re making the best product we can to sell to our customers. We’ve identified a few who are interested in our material and they’ve knocked on the door more than once, so we’ve got some definite interest in our material.”

Ore will be mined from the Bear Lodge rare earth deposit and transported immediately to the processing facility in Upton, where the thorium separation will take place.

“We will remove it in Upton and then send the thorium off to a licensed waste disposal facility. It is blended and neutralized and put into the storage facility,” Pickarts says.

The disposal facility of choice is likely to be located in Clive, Utah, says Paul Bergstrom, Director of Environmental, Health and Safety. The waste will be stored for short periods in Upton and shipped out regularly in controlled containers, according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing requirements.

“It’s a waste disposal facility that can accept low level radioactive waste. [We’ll be sending] a small quantity, less than 40 pounds a day,” he explains.

By seeking efficiencies such as this one, RER continues to streamline its process and hopes that this will in turn improve the feasibility of the overall project.

“It’s all about cost. Prices are driven by the market, they’ve been up and down and they will fluctuate now and to eternity according to supply and demand,” Pickarts explains.

“We want to have as low-cost an operation as possible so we can withstand the fluctuations in price. When prices are up we’ll make that much more money and when prices are down we’ll still make enough money – any time you can save operating cost, it’s for the good of the project.”

A cost-effective thorium removal process is not the only efficiency to have come from the company’s pilot plant. Test work has identified other opportunities to both lower operating costs and generate additional revenues for RER.

These opportunities include optimizing reagent use, possible byproduct recovery and downstream elemental separation, all of which the company is now studying. Down the road, this will reduce acid and energy consumption, which will cut the project’s biggest two expenditures.

“What the number impact is I will let you know in a few months. We’re putting the model in now and we’ll see what the bottom line is, but it definitely did save us a lot of money,” Pickarts smiles.

The progression of technology for a project such as this one is a process of trial and error. Optimization ideas are tried out at the pilot plant and the associated costs are then considered.

“All these plans and data are being incorporated into the economic studies we’re doing right now, which will be published some time later this year and will feed into the feasibility study we’ll be doing,” says Pickarts.

Henry Kasaini, Director of Science and Technology, is named on the patent as the inventor of the thorium extraction process. Kasaini supervises and oversees the pilot plant test work conducted at SGS Lakefield Canada.

“Henry Kasaini is the brains behind this. He’s a brilliant man and he’s developed this with some bench scale tests, transferred to pilot scale tests and come up with the science behind it,” says Pickarts.

“It’s definitely beneficial and our customers are excited about the fact that we have a thorium and uranium free product.”

The pilot plant has focused on the flow of operations in the process of recovering ore from the Bear Lodge in 2013. Over a four-week period, testing took place at a production scale of 240kg per day.

“Little breakthroughs like this are good. We’ve got some really smart scientists working for us and smart geologists and engineers,” concludes Pickarts.

“We like to pursue good ideas, they help the company and project out.”