CANADIAN MINING PERSPECTIVES – A rare look at rare earths

I could guess that only a handful of CMJ readers (myself included) give much thought to the rare earth elements. Ho...
I could guess that only a handful of CMJ readers (myself included) give much thought to the rare earth elements. How often do we remember their importance in medicine, the military and modern gadgetry? MP3 players, MRI machines and smart bombs, to name a few, all rely to some extent on these exotic materials.

Rare earths are defined as the Lanthanide and Actinide series on the periodic table. If that doesn't bring a list instantly to mind, some of their names may ring a bell: cerium, scandium, thorium, yttrium, uranium, plutonium. Or they may not: einsteinium, praseodymium, americium, europium, californium, nobelium, and so on.

I will grant that rare earth elements (REE) are easily overlooked, but like the not-so-exotic metals iron and copper, REEs must be mined. That puts them on my radar. Thanks to communication with GREAT WESTERN MINERALS GROUP of Saskatoon, I now know how important they are and where they are mined.

Approximately 97% of the world's supply of REE (other than uranium) comes from China. That country is poised to turn this resource into an economic advantage. Rather than export REE, China has a strategy to control the rare earth markets. That country dropped its REE prices to cost, driving other producers out of the market. It has the world's largest REE research facilities. Chinese REE consumption is increasing and exports are decreasing.

Global annual demand for rare earths is projected to reach 200,000 tonnes by 2010, compared with 130,000 tonnes. As technology advances, REE demand grows, and China has a stranglehold on the market.

The United States imports all of its REE requirements, and 95% of them come from China. Furthermore, the only REE mine in that country was closed a few years ago as was the Rare Earth Information Center. The U.S. has no stockpile of REEs and is completely dependent on China.

There may be an alternative to Chinese REEs if Great Western can successfully develop its Hoidas Lake project 50 km northeast of Uranium City, Saskatchewan. The company aims to be in a position to meet 10% of the U.S. rare earth demand by 2009. The REE are present in the minerals apatite and allanite that occur in veins at Hoidas Lake.

Great Western has commissioned a prefeasibility study that indicates a 500-t/d mine and mill would have a 20-year life. Metallurgical investigations are considering flotation and leaching options. The bankable feasibility study is due next year.

With luck, it may be a Canadian company that breaks China's grip on the world's supply of rare earth elements.


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