Russian government plans to boost rare earths output

By IM Staff
Published: Friday, 09 June 2017

Russia's Ministry of Industry and Trade has signalled its intention to support the rare earths sector through with financial backing, as restrictions on foreign processing technologies could be relaxed to help the country exploit its large resources.

by Eugene Vorotnikov

Russia’s government plans to increase domestic rare earths production over the next few years, officials familiar with the scheme have confirmed to IM.

According to Denis Manturov, Russia’s minister of industry and trade, the Putin administration will initially set aside the equivalent of $350m to directly and indirectly support the sector.

Speaking at a ministerial meeting in May, Manturov said that generating strong local demand for the elements was essential to grow the industry. He also stressed that Russian companies involved in the rare earths value chain need to be given access to modern international technology in order to be competitive.

A trade ministry official told IM that the government will allocate funding to research and development, tax incentives, guaranteed purchases by the State Institution on Formation of the State Fund of Precious Metals and Precious Stones (Gokhran) and the creation of a strategic reserve for rare earth materials.

The US Geological Survey (USGS) currently ranks Russia as the fourth largest producer of rare earths in the world, at 3,000 tonnes of production in 2016. This puts the country a long way behind the world’s number one rare earths supplier, China, which mined 105,000 tonnes of the minerals last year. However, the USGS estimates that that Russia hosts at least 18m tonnes rare earths reserves, giving it significant potential to expand output.

Manturov said that the development of Russia’s rare earths sector has been hindered by a lack of analytical capabilities, meaning that mineralogy and separation techniques for Russian rare earth ores have not been fully explored.

He also blamed the geographical remoteness and geological complexity of many of Russia’s largest rare earths deposits for making it difficult to attract the large sums of capital needed to develop them. Weak international prices for rare earths have similarly deterred investors from backing Russian projects.

Development targets

Russia’s largest rare earths deposit, the Tomtor field in the Yakutia Republic, eastern Siberia, is likely to be a priority development asset for the Russian government, along with the Seligdar field, also in Yakutia and the Lovozero field on the Kola peninsula, northwest Russia.

According to Manturov, Russia’s government has accepted the need to develop rare earths processing capacity, with foreign help if necessary. Since Vladimir Putin first became Prime Minister of Russia in 2000, Russian companies have been largely restricted to using domestically produced technology, which has failed to keep pace with global developments particularly in mineral processing.

Although the emphasis is still heavily on Russian-led development in rare earths and includes a hydrometallurgical separation plant in Solikamsk in the country’s Perm region and by-product enrichment of fly ash, coal ash, titanium-zirconium fields, apatite and tailings, Manturov’s comments suggest that Russia’s technological restrictions may be relaxed.

Andrei Tverdov, technical director of Moscow-based consultancy IMC Montan, told IM that while China’s dominance of the global rare earths market has encouraged private investors to take a closer look at Russian projects, implementation will be impossible without state support.

Such assistance, he said, is particularly important during the early stages of projects, which require large capital outlays.

Figures from the Russian industry ministry suggest that domestic rare earths output could rise from 1,000-3,000 tpa today to 40,000 tonnes by 2020-2022, assuming the slated policies are put into effect.

Gennady Sarychev, deputy director of JSC Science and Innovations, one of Russia’s largest scientific research institutions, is confident that demand for rare earths in Russia will grow in the near future.

"Further development of nuclear medicine is impossible without the use of lutetium, the rarest of the rare earth elements," he told IM.

"Ever-increasing environmental requirements for fuel will result in the increase of the use of oil cracking catalysts, autocatalysts and additives for diesel fuel, which are based on rare earths. In addition, the development of energy-saving and electronic technologies will also contribute to demand growth. The expansion of nuclear power will result in the increase of the use of rare earths including gadolinium and erbium," he added.

This article from Industrial Minerals' June magazine was first published online on 3 June 2017.