Neo Performance Materials and Energy Fuels Inc. are launching a new rare earth production initiative spanning European and North American critical material supply chains.
The initiative will produce value-added rare earth products from natural monazite sands, a byproduct of heavy mineral sands mined in the southeastern United States. Energy Fuels will process the monazite sands into a mixed rare earth carbonate (RE Carbonate) in Utah for use as feed material for Neo’s value-added separated rare earth production plant in Europe.
Energy Fuels is also continuing to evaluate developing additional value-added US rare earth production capabilities in Utah in the future.
Under an agreement in principle, subject to completion of definitive agreements, Colorado-based Energy Fuels will process natural monazite sands into an RE Carbonate beginning in March or April 2021 and ship a portion of that production to Neo’s rare earth separations facility in Sillamäe, Estonia (Silmet).
Neo will then process the RE Carbonate into separated rare earth materials for use in rare earth permanent magnets and other rare earth-based advanced materials.
Because of increasing demand for value-added rare earth materials in European manufacturing, Toronto-based Neo seeks to expand and diversify its current supplies of rare earth feedstock at Silmet, which is the only operational rare earth separations facility in Europe. Silmet has been separating rare earths into commercial value-added products for more than 50 years.
In addition to supplying RE Carbonate to Neo, Energy Fuels is also evaluating the potential to develop US separation capabilities at its White Mesa Mill, or nearby, as it works to increase its monazite sand ore supplies, thereby fully integrating a US rare earth supply chain in the coming years, in addition to supplying RE Carbonate to European markets.
Typical monazite ore has a higher value than other rare earth bearing ores, as it contains 50% – 60%+ total rare earth content, plus 0.20% – 0.30% recoverable natural uranium, which is the typical grade of uranium found in uranium mines that have historically fed the White Mesa Mill.
This means that, in addition to extracting the high concentrations of rare earths from the monazite ore, the White Mesa Mill will also extract the naturally occurring uranium in this ore, which Energy Fuels will sell to power clean, carbon-free nuclear energy.
Energy Fuels will produce its RE Carbonate from natural monazite sands supplied by US-based Chemours Company under a sales agreement between Energy Fuels and Chemours that was announced on 14 December 2020. Chemours will supply Energy Fuels with a minimum quantity of 2,500 tons per annum of natural monazite ore produced in the state of Georgia, and elsewhere in the southeast US.
Upon completion of the current commercial-scale pilot program at the White Mesa Mill, Neo’s Silmet facility expects to purchase and process a minimum of 840 metric tonnes of total rare earth oxides (TREO) per year from Energy Fuels, which is in addition to Silmet’s current production. This would represent approximately 80% of Energy Fuels production from current Chemours supplies.
Significant quantities of natural monazite ore are produced around the world as a byproduct of zircon and titanium production from heavy mineral sand operations, including large resources in the US, Australia, India, South Africa, and other nations.
Energy Fuels is seeking to secure additional quantities of monazite ores that it can use to further this program and has a goal of processing 15,000 tons or more per year in the future. For perspective, 15,000 tons of monazite per annum would represent approximately 2% of the White Mesa Mill’s existing throughput capacity and less than 1% of its existing tailings capacity but contain rare earths equal to roughly 50% of total current US demand.
Neo and Energy Fuels have been working in a technical collaboration since April 2020 to establish a monazite processing and RE Carbonate production capacity at Energy Fuels’ White Mesa Mill plant. As previously announced, Energy Fuels successfully produced RE Carbonate at the White Mesa Mill in October 2020 from monazite sands. Neo’s Silmet facility in Estonia has successfully processed trial quantities of Energy Fuels’ RE Carbonate. When ramped up to commercial scale, this new rare earth supply chain is expected to constitute the first time in more than twenty years that monazite ore from the US will be used as a feedstock to manufacture separated rare earth materials outside of China.
Of the 55% TREO typically found in US monazite sands, NdPr comprises approximately 22% of the TREO. NdPr are among the most valuable of the rare earth elements, as they are the key ingredient in the manufacture of high-strength permanent magnets that are essential to the lightweight and powerful motors required in electric vehicles, permanent magnet wind turbines used for renewable energy generation, and a variety of other modern technologies, including, mobile devices and defense applications.
Additionally, because monazite is typically a byproduct from other mining operations, processing monazite ore for the recovery of rare earths, along with the contained uranium, is expected to be at a relatively low cost, since no new mining needs to be licensed, financed, and developed.
Furthermore, Energy Fuels will utilize its existing White Mesa Mill to produce the RE Carbonate, and Silmet will utilize its existing separations facility, thereby avoiding the need to license, finance and develop new facilities with these capabilities. As a result, producing rare earths and uranium from existing mining, processing, and separation facilities is not only expected to be at a relatively low cost, it will result in a much smaller environmental footprint when compared to other projects.
Implementation of this initiative is subject to successful pilot-scale operations, execution of definitive agreements, and optimization of the companies’ production processes.