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Inorganic Chemistry

Utah-based Energy Fuels plans rare earths production

Uranium firm will produce neodymium and praseodymium for magnets

by Melody M. Bomgardner
December 21, 2020

This photo shows Energy Fuel's uranium processing facility at night.
Credit: Energy Fuels
Energy Fuels will process sands containing rare earth oxides at its White Mesa Mill in Utah.

Energy Fuels, a uranium and vanadium processor based in Utah, says it will purchase 2,500 metric tons (t) of monazite sands from Chemours per year for 3 years beginning in the first quarter of 2021. The project could be a baby step to help the US become less reliant on China for two key rare earth elements, neodymium and praseodymium.

The sands contain an average of 55% rare earth oxides and 0.2% uranium. Energy Fuels says it will start up operations to produce and sell rare earths, making it the second rare earths producer in the U.S.

The sands are an unusually rich source of valuable neodymium and praseodymium, which are used to make the permanent magnets for electric motors and wind turbines. The elements are also used in electronics and in equipment used for defense applications.

China has controlled the world’s rare earths supply for decades. Though countries such as the US, Australia, Russia, and Canada have potentially valuable deposits, China has worked since the 1980s to finance and control the vast majority of downstream processing infrastructure. And it has maintained its dominance with prices that no other country can match.

The monazite sand that will go to Energy Fuels comes from the Offerman Mineral Sand Plant, operated by Chemours in southeast Georgia. It is part of a deposit that also contains the mineral ilmenite, which Chemours processes to obtain titanium dioxide, a white pigment used in paints and coatings.

Energy Fuels will process the sand at its White Mesa Mill near Blanding, Utah. The mill has been operating for 40 years, says President and CEO Mark Chalmers, and is already licensed to handle the sand as well as any wastes. It was already set up to extract the uranium, and needs only minor upgrades, planned for 2021, to obtain and concentrate rare earth oxides, Chalmers says.

The next step is to design and build a plant to produce separated Neodymium-Praseodymium (NdPr) oxide, and possibly cerium, as soon as 2023. The facility would cost about $100 million and take 2 years to complete. The company would like to obtain additional monazite sand from other locations with a target of obtaining 15,000 t per year.

“It is our goal to supply 50% of the US separated rare earth oxide demand,” Chalmers told investors on a conference call. “We think this is absolute rocket speed.”

The only operating rare earths mine in the US is California’s Mountain Pass mine, which currently produces and sells rare earth concentrates. MP Materials bought the operation, which had twice gone bankrupt, with plans to build a separation plant financed, in part, with a $9.6 million grant from the US Department of Defense. For now, it ships material to China for downstream processing.

In addition to Energy Fuels and MP Materials, companies in Canada, Australia, and the UK all hope to finance and permit rare earth separation facilities. One firm, Australia’s Lynas, operates an oxide separation plant in Malaysia.

The high NdPr content of monazite sand gives Energy Fuels a big advantage over MP Materials, says James Kennedy, president of ThREE Consulting, a rare earths advisory firm. Because the sand contains a large amount of radioactive thorium as well as uranium, its use, handling, and transport is strictly regulated not just for safety but to avoid the material’s potential use in nuclear weapons. Chemours and Energy Fuels is a rare case where both players have the necessary licenses, Kennedy says.

Obtaining the full value from the minerals will be difficult, however. Kennedy says 95% of the value of rare earths is not in the oxide but in the metals. China produces the metals at low prices because it has heavily subsidized that part of the manufacturing process.

“They just can’t deliver the baby—the baby is metals,” Kennedy says. “They’ll end up selling to China like everyone else.” An alternative strategy that Kennedy supports is outlined in a bill sponsored by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), that would set up a cooperative of rare earth supply chain companies and companies that buy magnets. Such a system, Kennedy asserts, would ensure cost-competitive magnets are available for technology manufacturers while ensuring any liabilities from radioactive waste were covered.

Chalmers says Energy Fuels would like to work with downstream companies to explore the feasibility of making metals and magnet alloys. “We’re going to start seeking collaboration with auto manufactures, renewable energy companies, and others to look at rebuilding the entire US rare earth supply chain.”



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