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Specialty Chemicals

Rare earths facility planned for the US

A joint venture of Lynas and Blue Line wants to fill a supply chain gap

by Melody M. Bomgardner
May 22, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 21

 

09721-buscon1-magnet.jpg
Credit: Shin-Etsu Chemical
Permanent magnets, like these used in electric motors, are made from rare earth elements.

The Australian mining firm Lynas says it will join with Blue Line, a US-based rare earths processor, to develop a rare earths separation facility in Hondo, Texas. The new capacity will help build a supply chain outside of China for the elements, which are used in a number of high-tech manufacturing sectors.

The announcement comes in the midst of a US-China trade war that has, so far, omitted rare earths in tit-for-tat tariffs. But a visit this week by Chinese president Xi Jinping to one of the world’s largest suppliers was a reminder to US industry and policy makers that China dominates the rare earths market.

The Texas venture will focus on separating heavy rare earths such as dysprosium and terbium from ore. It may grow to include lighter neodymium, praseodymium, and lanthanum. The minerals are used to make permanent magnets, catalytic converters, batteries, electronics, wind turbines, and water treatment chemicals.

Lynas is also investing to boost production and initial processing at its mine and facilities in Western Australia and to expand its separation facility in Malaysia.

The Australian mine is the largest outside of China. California desert holds a smaller mine and an idled processing plant. But for years, the US has lacked the skills and capacity to separate chemically similar elements from mined ore, purify the elements, and convert them from oxides into metal, points out Jon Hykawy, president of Stormcrow Capital, a minerals market research firm.

“This is a positive step toward re-establishing a US supply chain for rare earth elements,” Hykawy says.

Some US lawmakers are concerned that China’s dominance in the supply of rare earths has the makings of a security threat. Earlier this month, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R–AK) introduced legislation to reduce US reliance on foreign minerals.

“Our nation’s mineral security is a significant, urgent, and often ignored challenge. Our reliance on China and other nations for critical minerals costs us jobs, weakens our economic competitiveness, and leaves us at a geopolitical disadvantage,” Murkowski said.

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