These Two Companies Are Innovating To Help With America’s Rare Earths Challenge

Excerpt from - January 15, 2021

As we deal with our domestic political turmoil, it’s important we not lose sight of some critical technology challenges we face regardless who’s in office and what size our Covid payouts are. Chief among those is that China continues to have the U.S. over a barrel when it comes to our supply of rare earth elements (REEs), which are vital for everything from batteries to electric vehicles to cell phones to defense technologies.

The good news is that, as I’ve covered extensively in the past year, numerous companies and the U.S. government are coming together to solve that problem in a variety of ways, from starting up old REE mines and processing facilities, to recycling our e-waste and recovering and reusing the REEs it contains.

Now two new players have entered the REE fray, both with plans to tackle the problem from a different angle: recovering REEs from already-mined materials.

The first of the two, ElementUS, is a joint venture announced last October between DADA Holdings (principal owner of New Day Aluminum) and Enervoxa, a Canadian green technologies company. DADA is a Fort Lauderdale investment and management company focused on metals and mining, while New Day is the parent company to Noranda Bauxite in St. Ann, Jamaica, which mines and processes bauxite ore for use in its alumina refining, and Noranda Alumina in Gramercy, Louisiana, which produces (among other things) smelter-grade alumina from bauxite, as a feedstock to the aluminum industry. Enervoxa, meanwhile, develops extraction technologies to process various mining tailings, and is also active in hydrogen production for clean energy, along with other green technologies.

ElementUS was formed to extract REEs and other valuable minerals from bauxite residue left over from Noranda’s mining operation in Jamaica. “One of the biggest challenges for North American alumina refining is bauxite residue,” said John Habisreitinger, New Day’s COO. “We’ve never been able to find a sustainable use for it before, but now we’re aiming to be a zero-residue operation. The new joint venture will reclaim the residue by separating it into useful minerals—metals and REEs.” ElementUS will build an extraction plant, which will have a one million ton per year processing capacity, on the Noranda refinery site in Gramercy, where New Day has about 35 million dry tons of bauxite residue waiting to be processed. The residue contains 10 of the 17 REEs, as well as titanium, iron, and gallium.

“Technological advances make separation economically viable,” said Habisreitinger. While the extraction plant’s construction schedule is not public yet, he added, “We expect to be very aggressive on timing.”

The second company taking on the REE challenge is Energy Fuels Inc., a Lakewood, Colorado-based uranium processing company. They announced a three-year agreement last December to purchase a minimum of 2,500 tons per year of natural monazite sands from The Chemours Company, a Wilmington, Delaware, company that produces a wide variety of chemical products, including refrigerants, pigments, and polymers. The monazite sands, expected to contain about 55% total REE content along with uranium, will come from the company’s Offerman Mineral Sand Plant in Georgia, and will be processed at the Energy Fuels White Mesa Mill uranium plant in Utah.

“We have a facility already built and operable, and staffed with about 60 people,” said Mark Chalmers, President and CEO of Energy Fuels. “We can make REE concentrate in short order. We can handle the radioactivity—it’s what we’ve done for 40 years.” Shipments of monazite sands from Georgia to Utah are expected to commence early this year. Energy Fuels expects to produce both commercial uranium and a mixed REE concentrate containing over 70% REEs, with about 22% of that being the high-demand neodymium and praseodymium oxides used in the high-strength permanent magnets required for the electric motors used in wind turbines and electric vehicles. “We’ve taken a ‘just do it’ approach,” added Chalmers. “We plan to have commercial revenue streams inside of a year.” Energy Fuels estimates that the Chemours material’s REE content represents nearly 10% of total U.S. REE demand.

“To get a facility like ours built and permitted would take 10 years,” Chalmers said. “That’s a distinct advantage. We have tailings containment with a 1,000-year design and two million tons of capacity. To replicate our plant would take $300 to $400 million.” The company plans to sell its concentrates to buyers in Europe and Asia until domestic REE separation is more firmly established. Energy Fuels is also evaluating adding its own separation, metal-making and alloying capabilities in the future.

Both new entrants, then, are working to provide incremental domestic REE extraction capacity. By themselves they won’t get us free from China. But they’re both another step in that needed direction.