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Firms aim to boost rare earth processing in the US

China dominates processing of rare earth elements required for the energy transition

by Matt Blois
August 26, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 28

A deep pit surrounded by white buildings in a desert landscape.
Credit: MP Materials
MP Materials' mine in California is one of the only US locations extracting rare earth elements. The company now says it's also refining rare earth elements.

Firms in the US and Australia are pushing forward with plans to improve the processing of rare earth elements, which are used to make magnets found in electric vehicle motors, wind turbines, and military weapons.

Rare earth elements are mined all over the world, but the processing steps that convert ore into rare earth oxides and metals are concentrated in China, as is the final production of magnets, according to the US Geological Survey.

MP Materials, which extracts rare earth ores at a mine in California, says it has begun to refine mined ore into rare earth oxides. MP expects to start shipments of neodymium-praseodymium oxide this quarter. The material will be further processed into metals by companies in Southeast Asia.

Though there are 17 rare earth elements, neodymium, praseodymium, terbium, and dysprosium are the most important ones for magnets.

Separately, Lynas Rare Earths says the US Department of Defense is increasing its financial contribution to the company’s planned rare earth processing facility in Texas by $138 million after design work indicated that the project would cost more than expected. The department initially committed $120 million in June 2022. Lynas, which processes rare earths in Malaysia, has already purchased land for the project and hopes to start production before June 2026.

Further down the supply chain, USA Rare Earth announced that it will source rare earth metals—metals that normally come from China—from Australian Strategic Materials so that it can make magnets at a planned facility in Oklahoma.

Australian Strategic is developing a rare earth mine in Australia. It plans to produce rare earth oxides there and convert them into metals at its facility in South Korea. USA Rare Earth hopes to build its own processing facility in Texas.

Ross Embleton, a rare earth analyst with the consulting firm Wood Mackenzie, says governments outside China are eager to build their rare earth processing capabilities to ensure that they have the raw materials needed to meet climate targets. But he adds that it will be difficult for firms outside China to compete with Chinese companies, which have strong government support and decades of experience.

“The processing and separation stages are very complex, very costly, very difficult to do,” Embleton says. China “has a real head start on that front.”

While there has been some progress on the mining, refining, and separation of rare earth elements outside China, only a handful of non-Chinese companies can produce the metals and alloys needed to make magnets and the magnets themselve, he says.



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