Dr Michelle K Lynch
18th January 2021.
Welcome to the inaugural edition of the Rare Earth News Weekly Activity Update. In fact, this edition covers all activity from the 1st of January 2021 and will be updated on a weekly basis.
Our rare earth elements (REE) environment scan picked up around 30 news articles since the beginning of the year. From a geographic perspective, the two countries that come up most often are China and the USA. Almost 60 patent publications (see patent tracker link below) relating to REE magnets have also been published in 2021 and these have been filed almost exclusively by Chinese assignees.
Decarbonisation goals require a seismic shift from fossil fuel technologies to low carbon and renewable replacements – cornerstones of the green transition are electrification of transport and heat and introduction of renewable power. However, this will require vast quantities of REE, with permanent magnets set to be the largest single demand sector. There are well founded fears that REE supply disruption will hinder the green transition.
China is the world’s largest producer of rare earth elements (REE), a fact which is of major concern to overseas nations in the West which are the greatest importers of REE. Furthermore, China increasingly needs more of its own REE production to satisfy domestic demand. In 2018, it actually became a net importer of REE taking material from imports Myanmar, North Korea, Australia and the USA. In 2020, China’s export volumes were reported by the Global Times to have contracted to 2015 levels. Furthermore, a draft guideline published late last week by the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) sets out China’s moves to protect its REE supply chain. The China Daily reported on how China intends to crack down on REE mining and processing operations with controls being brought in to reign in facilities with poor environmental credentials, illegal mining and smelting, illicit rare earths trading and introduction of stricter quota management.
In many respects, this is a positive move. The mining and processing of REE before they make their way into consumer items can be hazardous. This is due in part to the presence of radioactive elements in the ores from which REE are extracted and the waste that these operations generate. In 2019, Yale Environment 360 reported that China faced a $5.5 billion bill for dealing with abandoned rare earths mining sites in the southern Jiangxi Province. The landscape, once thriving with rare earths production is now replete with large wastewater ponds and pools threatening to contaminate waterways and groundwater. Introduction of safer and more sustainable REE production methods is absolutely necessary to avert further health, safety and environmental (HSE) disasters.
Over this weekend, The Telegraph also published an insightful piece entitled “Is there a dark side to green energy?” in which it sets out the vast benefits of REE. Magnets made from REE are 7-10 times more powerful than standard magnets – as the French journalist Guillaume Pitron – author of “The Rare Earth Metals War” points out the phenomenal performance of REE magnets allow “a Porsche Taycan to accelerate faster from 0-60 mph than an F1 McLaren Mercedes”. Besides electric vehicles, wind turbines are also large consumers of neodymium-iron-boron (NdFeB) REE permanent magnets. These are weighing as much as 2 tonnes in a 3-megawatt direct drive wind turbine – 1,000-2,000 times the weight typically found in an electric vehicle.
Clearly REE supply is vital to meeting strategic and environmental goals and this is at odds with the potential for a further reduction in supply from China. Not surprisingly alternative sources are being sought pretty rapidly. Companies in North America and Europe are looking at ways to improve domestic REE supply security and sustainability of the extraction and manufacturing processes. Forbes reported on two companies actively involved in developing REE supply – the DADA Holdings/Enervoxa joint venture company – ElementUS is developing a process to extract REE from left over bauxite residue, meanwhile Colorado-based Energy Fuels Inc., is looking to extract REE from monazite sands, monopolising on its uranium processing capabilities.
The UK has also been making a splash with the news that the rare earth miner Pensana has selected the Saltend Chemicals Park in the Humber Local Enterprise Partnership in the North East of England as the proposed site to build the UK’s first rare earth processing facility in conjunction with Wood Group. Pensana was reported as the best performing rare earth stock by The Rare Earths Observer. Paul Atherby, Pensana’s Chairman, reported on LinkedIn that the company’s stock had witnessed “a 1000% rise on the ASX and a 411% rise on the LSE”.Atherby attributes the company’s performance to establishing a sustainable supply of rare earths and the decision to build the UK REE facility.
Projects such as these will be of considerable benefit in the longer term along with initiatives to increase REE recycling from end-of-life (EOL) materials such as wind turbine and electric vehicles (EV) permanent magnets. Recycling technology will be essential to improving sustainability of REE supply. Watch this space for a future focus on the topic of REE recycling!
Patent tracker spreadsheet – click link below: