The British Columbia Geological Survey (BCGS) Symposium on
Strategic and Critical Materials in Victoria, Canada, in
November saw academics from across the world gather to discuss
some of the pressing challenges and opportunities facing the
rare earths sector.
The conference heard that processing remains one of the main
barriers to new entrants in the rare earths industry.
"It takes millions of years to produce a good deposit. The
good news is that a rare earth flowsheet only takes 15 years to
make," Niels Verbaan, principal metallurgist at SGS Canada
Inc., a technical services consultancy, quipped.
"Once a deposit has been found and described by geologists,
there is still much work to be done by metallurgists for an
efficient flowsheet," Verbaan added, noting that there is
little operating experience to be drawn on in the Western
Verbaan said that a key requirement for metallurgists is
full knowledge and understanding of the feed material. Rare
earth ore minerals include a variety of phosphates, fluorides
and cyclosilicates, each with individual processing needs.
He told IM that current rare earth industry
metallurgical challenges reminded him of nickel laterite
projects being developed in the 1980s.
"There was a big development rush with not enough time and
money spent on metallurgy, resulting in operational
difficulties," Verbaan said.
Stephen Rowins, chief geologist and executive director at
the BCGS, agreed, and told IM that, in this
instance, strong acids used to process the feedstock "wrecked"
the plants by reacting more quickly with their equipment than
"There is no real alternative to acid-based separation in
the rare earths industry, however," Rowins said.
Challenges for new entrants include the evolution of
gelatinous silica from specific mineralogies, Alex Knox, a rare
earths and limestone-focused consulting geologist at AWK
Geological Consulting Ltd, said.
This problem is now solvable, however, Knox said, and
several delegates suggested that high purity silica gel could
even be sold as a silicon metal feedstock.
For Verbaan, amelioration of complex processing difficulties
could be found in additional flowsheet piloting.
"Recent entrants could have seen some more work done on acid
bake piloting, though acid leaching was better advanced," he
But while new, pilot-scale processing technologies exist,
like molecular recognition technology (MRT), as championed by
Alaska-focused Ucore Rare Metals Inc. and free flow
electrophoresis (FFE), supported by Quebec-operating Geomega
Inc., they remain a gamble.
"There are big risks with new tech when upscaling," Verbaan
told IM. "However, MRT seems to be the most
advanced and it’s used in other industries," he