By Julian Ryall and Hanna
Japan's Sumitomo Corp. has
commenced test production of rare earth elements in its joint
venture (JV) with Kazatomprom, the national atomic energy
company of Kazakhstan.
In a statement sent to
IM, a spokesperson for Sumitomo in Tokyo
confirmed: "Currently, we are producing a small amount of rare
earth materials on a trial basis since this June, and we are
now making preparations to go into commercial production."
Exports to Japan had been due to
start in 2013, suggesting that the project is at present behind
The two companies set up Summit
Atom Rare Earth Co. LLP (SARECO) in 2010 to recover rare earth
elements within residues from Kazatomprom's uranium mines.
The JV company built a new factory
in 2012 to work alongside one of Kazatomprom’s
existing facilities, and in the same year announced an annual
output target of 1,500 tonnes rare earth oxides in its initial
years of operations, to be scaled up to 3,000 tonnes by 2015
and 5,000-6,000 tonnes by 2017 according to a SARECO
The JV did not reply to requests
for other information on the progress it has made to date,
including the minerals recovered and whether the output has met
"My guess is what they’re doing is waiting for
assembly, because it takes money to get revamped equipment," a
US-based rare earths expert told IM, implying
that Kazatomprom’s existing facilities need an
upgrade before they can reach full commercial production
"It was a former Soviet Union mine and production plant, but
they closed that up when the Chinese began to take over the
rare earths market and it has been sitting there for a while,"
the expert added.
Rare earths are in high demand in Japan because of their
applications in advanced electronic devices, plus hybrid and
SARECO has said it hopes to build a production plant for
separating rare earth oxides and metals from ore concentrate by
2016, and start producing rare earth elements permanent magnets
by 2018, but the delays cast doubt on these expectations.
"They could possibly be a force in the market somewhere down
the road," the expert told IM. "How much of a
profit they could make, it’s hard to say. The
labour there is cheap, and the stuff is right there. The
process there is pretty much controlled thanks to the Soviet
Union way back when."