Northern Minerals to research heavy rare earths separation

Published: Friday, 26 January 2018

While construction gathers pace on the mining junior's Browns Range pilot plant, the company moves toward devising its own separation technology.

"Security of supply will drive demand," the boss of the rare earth mining junior Northern Minerals told Industrial Minerals, while work nears completion on the first non-Chinese heavy rare earths capacity.

Construction on Northern Minerals’ Browns Range pilot plant in Australia, which is being shipped in parts from China, is expected to be completed by June 30, with the first shipments of rare earth carbonate by 30 September.

Northern Minerals has already mined the ore for the pilot plant's planned run of 60,000 tonnes per year of rare earth oxides, 15% of the finished plant's planned capacity.

Northern Minerals has signed a three year offtake agreement for mixed heavy rare earth carbonate from its pilot plant, with Chinese company JFMAG.

But the company has yet to lock in buyers for its planned total offtake, which it plans to make available to "as wide a range of buyers as possible".

But as well as expanding to a full-sized plant, Northern Minerals also has plans to develop its own separation capacity, a move which would break the Chinese stranglehold on the rare earths market.

Northern Minerals is currently raising A$5 million, with a share purchase plan, in order to explore its lease. A larger confirmed resource will encourage buyers, Bauk said, adding, "The end users want a bigger life of mine," he said. The money will also help to cut mining costs.

The company is also planning to review the possibility of developing its own separation process for terbium oxide and dysprosium oxide, the key heavy rare earth magnet minerals.

Magnet demand

"At the moment magnet minerals will make up 82% of our revenues," Bauk said, continuing, "The key revenue drives are dysprosium and terbium."

Dysprosium or terbium are used to improve performance in permanent magnets, which primarily consist of iron, boron, and the light rare-earth mineral neodymium.

These rare earth permanent magnets, which are much stronger than other magnets, are a key element in the high power-to-weight engines needed for electric vehicles (EVs), meaning demand for these magnets is rising rapidly alongside EV production.

"It’s a matter of speed in which the EVs are taken up," Bauk said, adding that the average EV engine contains 100 g of dysprosium.

Rare earth magnets are also used in wind energy generation, another growing market. But even as demand booms, heavy rare earths production is currently restricted to China.

"There’s really no supply of heavy rare earths planned outside of China," Bauk said, adding that production inside China was being restricted.

The high grade of the Browns Range reserve boasts a rare earth oxide content of around 6,600 parts per million, of which 8.9% is dysprosium.

Longer term, the company is interested in a a light rare earth project, which would widen the range of oxides the company could offer buyers, Bauk said. 

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