The Canadian rare earth processor Neo Performance Materials plans to buy the rights to explore a mineral deposit in Greenland that contains the rare earth elements neodymium and praseodymium, which are used to make magnets for electric cars, wind turbines, and missiles.
This project is the company’s first step into mining and part of a strategy to create dual supply chains for magnets inside and outside of China. Neo hopes the mineral deposit will eventually supply its rare earth separation plant in Estonia.
“I think it makes all the sense in the world from an operating perspective to be looking to secure our upstream,” CEO Constantine Karayannopoulos said on an investor call earlier this month. The firm also wants to build a magnet plant in Estonia.
The US Geological Survey estimates that in 2021 about 60% of rare earth elements were mined in China. After they are mined, ores containing a mixture of rare earth elements are concentrated. The concentrated ore has to be separated into individual oxides and processed into rare earth metals. Finally, those metals are used to make magnets.
James Kennedy, president of the rare earth advisory firm ThREE Consulting, says China has a near monopoly on the separation of rare earths and the production of magnets.
The US and other western countries are eager to increase production more locally. Last year, Energy Fuels started shipping concentrated, US-sourced rare earth materials to Neo’s processing plant in Estonia. In June, the US Department of Defense awarded Lynas Rare Earths a $120 million contract for a separation facility in Texas that will process the heavy rare earths. Lynas also got a $30 million grant in 2021 to build a facility for light rare earths like Nd and Pr. And the Inflation Reduction Act, which was recently signed into law, has incentives for producing critical minerals, which includes rare earth elements.
Kennedy says these recent moves will do little to challenge China’s dominance of the supply chain for magnets. He says high-quality rare earth magnets must include terbium and dysprosium, and that China is the only country that can separate them at commercial scale.
“All resources eventually flow through China to become metals or magnets,” he says in an email.
This story was updated on Sept. 2, 2022, to correct statements about the separation capabilities of Lynas Rare Earths. The company's planned heavy rare earth facility in Texas won't necessarily separate gadolinium, dysprosium, and ytterbium. And the company cannot currently separate terbium and dysprosium.