Friday, 13 April 2012

Scramble for Rare Earth Elements begins

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windmill albanyAnother potential shortfall is Dysprosium (Dy), an element that helps maintain magnetic properties at high temperatures—a vital component in hybrid cars and windmills. Image: Ben ReiersonGIVEN Chinese supply restrictions and increasing future demand, WA is well positioned on Rare Earth Oxides (REOs).

Speaking as part of the Curtin Institute of Minerals and Energy (CIME) series, Professor Dudley Kingsnorth highlighted REO importance in green technologies and in the future world economy.

Global demand is currently 105kt/pa for REO, which could rise to 240kt/pa by 2020.

The market is dominated by China, who supplies 95 percent of the resource, but the door has been opened for Australian producers due in part to recent Chinese policies.

These include what Prof Kingsnorth calls ‘the line in the sand’, China’s 2010 decision to constrain production and export of REOs, and the country’s decision that same year to temporarily suspend shipments to Japan because of a territorial dispute.

This has prompted Japan to invest $1.2 billion into finding new sources and recycling, with other countries following suit.

“Opportunities for Australian mining and processing services are very significant,” says Prof Kingsnorth.

“While rest-of-world (ROW) should be sufficient in Light Rare Earth Elements (REEs) by 2020, Heavy REEs availability will be a global issue. Our 2020 goal should be for ROW to supply 100 percent of REO demand.”

In particular, he foresees potential shortages in Heavy REEs Europium (EU), Terbium (Tb) and Yttrium (Y)—all phosphors used in florescent lighting, LCDs and LEDs.

Another potential shortfall is Dysprosium (Dy), an element that helps maintain magnetic properties at high temperatures—a vital component in hybrid cars and windmills.

Prof Kingsnorth concedes mining Rare Earths isn’t easy.

Moving from resource to a bankable feasibility study can take five to 12 years with projects requiring expenditures around a billion dollars.

The presence of Uranium (U) and Thorium (Th) in extraction makes environmental impact statements and disposal plans paramount.

“There are 403 projects a present, but my belief is... there are only going to be six to eight non-Chinese projects in production by 2020.”

Luckily for WA, one of these is Mt Weld run by Lynas Corporation, which is expected to ramp up production in the next five years, increasing output ten-fold from 6000 to 60,000 tonnes.

Given work by CIME and the CSIRO on the Mt Weld project, Prof Kingsnorth is optimistic.

“There are great capabilities recognised globally in Australia, and I think the opportunities aren’t just in mines, but are in selling the [processing and other] services we have in developing those mines, and in this way making it easier for projects in Australia to happen.”

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