In an attempt to minimize its dependency on China, the global rare earth leader, the U.S. government plans to fund domestic rare earths projects.
Rare earths are a group of 17 minerals used widely in a plethora of consumer electronics and military equipment. They have no known substitutes. For instance, Apple Inc uses rare earths in its iPhone’s taptic engine, which makes the phone vibrate.
China has spent the last 30 years to build build a monopoly over the sector. The United States has no rare earths processing plants.
Last year, in an attempt to change this scenario, the Pentagon said it would fund mines and processors via the Defense Production Act, which gives the military wide berth to procure certain equipment.
Following this several rare earth projects are under development in the U.S.
Energy Fuels Inc
In early April, Energy Fuels Inc stated it was considering ways to retool some of its equipment to process rare earths. However, the company does not plan on becoming a rare earths miner. Instead, the company said, it was looking at opportunities to process rock for others in order to extract rare earths.
A final decision on this is yet to be made.
In a statement Energy Fuels said, it expects uranium to remain its primary focus.
Australia-based Lynas is privately held by Blue Line Corp. It is the largest producer of rare earths apart from China. The company extracts rare earths from a mine in western Australia and ships it to Malaysia for processing. In recent years, its Malaysian operations have come under increased government scrutiny.
In 2019, Lynas entered in an agreement with Blue Line to build rare earths processing plants in Texas, where it will have a majority stake. Last December, the companies jointly applied for Pentagon funding for processing heavy rare earths, – a less-common type of rare earths that are highly prized for their use in weaponry. This is part of the reason why Lynas sought a U.S.-based partner.
On Wednesday, Lynas and Blue Line stated they have been selected by the Pentagon. They however did not disclose the quantum of funding nor list any conditions associated with the award.
MP Materials is a privately held company which owns California’s Mountain Pass mine, the only rare earths mine in the United States. China’s Shenghe Resources Holding Co owns around 10% of the company with Chinese customers accounting for all its annual revenue of about $100 million.
The company ships more than 50,000 tonnes of concentrated rare earths per year to China for processing. The rare earth miner is spending $200 million to restart mothballed equipment and aims to starts processing at the mine site by the end of this year; some industry analysts however opine, these goals may be overly optimistic.
Once the refining starts, the aim is to use onsite material to make neodymium and praseodymium (NdPr) – two of the 17 types of rare earths that are used to make magnets.
NioCorp Developments Ltd
NioCorp Developments Ltd is a company led by former Molycorp executives. It is developing the Elk Creek mine in Nebraska. Its mine will produce niobium – a material used to harden steel. Although it is not a rare earth, its mine also produces scandium – a rare earth.
The company is currently in the process of obtaining permits and is looking for financing.
Rare Element Resources Ltd
Since 1999, Rare Element Resources has been developing the Bear Lodge rare earths mine in Wyoming. In recent years, its project has run into delays in obtaining permits and faces other challenges, which added to headwinds in its ability to secure financing.
Texas Mineral Resources Corp
Texas Mineral Resources Corp is privately held by USA Rare Earth. The companies are developing the Round Top rare earths project in the western corner of Texas and hope to have it operational by 2023. In the meantime, the partners are building a pilot plant in Colorado to process rare earths.
Both companies are aiming to produce small amounts of processed rare earths by the middle of this decade. They hope to produce around 220 pounds (roughly 100 kg) annually. They are also hoping to snag supply deals with potential customers and secure financing for a full-scale plant near their Texas mine site.
UCore Rare Metals Inc
UCore Rare Metals Inc is a U.S. company which is developing the Bokan mine in Alaska; it is also building rare earths processing equipment. Alaska’s state government has pledged $145 million to support the project.
In a statement, UCore said, it plans to first build the processing plant and then develop the mine.
It has teamed up with Materion Corp to apply for Pentagon funding for the processing plant.
Materion has previously received financial support from the U.S. military to produce beryllium, a mineral used as a hardening agent for weapons. The beryllium production process has similarities to rare earths processing.