Canada Set to Boost Rare Earths Processing with Two New Projects

The western Canadian province of Saskatchewan is set to become a major hub for rare earths processing after two projects have broken through decades of industry deadlock. The two projects, a first for the region, are expected to pioneer a wave of new capacity. Mid-stream processing efforts have accelerated in North America as industry aims to develop the supply critical for energy transition.

The hub will contain two plants: one owned and developed by Australia’s Vital Metals and the other funded by the Saskatchewan government and owned and operated by the Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC).

“Our plant uses a lot of water and chemicals but unlike other jurisdictions will not produce a single litre of liquid waste,” SRC president Crabtree said.

Vital Metals’ facility is processing bastnaesite rare earth concentrate from its Nechalacho deposit in Canada’s Northwest Territories into a mixed rare earth carbonate for sale to U.S. and European customers. The company is one of the few outside China that has achieved production outside China, the world’s largest supplier of rare earths. The project has advanced rapidly from mine construction to an intermediate rare earth product. Vital expects to produce a 2.5t carbonate sample in the coming months and reach phase I capacity of 474 t/yr of neodymium-praseodymium (NdPr) oxide contained in a mixed rare earth carbonate by late 2024, and phase II capacity of 948 t/yr NdPr in 2025.

The SRC facility was built to provide midstream processing capacity for Canadian mining firms to process monazite, a rare earth-rich mineral which is particularly difficult to process.

“We were working with the government on strategic reserves in 2019, and realised that if nothing is done then as our resources are turned into reserves and production, mining companies would have no option but to supply the concentrate overseas if there was no midstream processing capacity in the country,” Crabtree said.

While monazite is a valuable source of rare earths, its processing requires the ability to handle radioactive materials. The only other monazite producer in the Western Hemisphere is uranium producer Energy Fuels (EF) in the United States.

The SRC plant will complete commissioning at the end of 2024 and have capacity for 3,000 t/yr of monazite concentrate with a 60% rare earth oxide content to produce 1,500 t/yr of separated rare earth oxides, including 300 t/yr of NdPr.

The plant is fully vertically integrated from monazite concentrate to rare earth metal and has just produced the first 100kg of metal in the pilot batch. After commissioning, it will have a capacity of 300 t/yr of metal, enough for magnet motors for 500,000 electric vehicles.

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