You can’t see them but they are everywhere and crucial in so many ways
By Ellsworth Dickson
Most people are totally unaware of how much they depend on the 17 rare earths in their daily lives. A short list of applications would include cameras and telescope lenses, catalytic converters, aircraft engines, X-ray and MRI scanning systems, TV and computer screens, the military and magnets in your car and speakers.
While he didn’t say so, President Donald Trump recently may have tried to buy Greenland for its rare earths; that’s because the US hardly produces any (15,000 tonnes) while China totally dominates that industrial sector, having produced 120,000 tonnes in 2018.
In an interview, Donald Bubar, President and CEO of Avalon Advanced Materials Inc. [AVL-TSX; AVLNF-OTCQX; OU5-FSE], which has a 100% interest in the advanced Nechalacho Project 100 km south of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, provided his insights into current rare earth developments.
RESOURCE WORLD: It was interesting to read the letter from the Pentagon seeking Rare Earth projects. What does that tell you about America’s dependence on China for Rare Earths?
DONALD BUBAR: It tells us there has been a reawakening of the reality that there is no security of supply of Rare Earth Elements, along with a lot of other critical minerals needed in modern technology.
RW: Why do you think the US has been so lax in developing its own, or other non-Chinese Rare Earth sources, especially for its military, when they’ve had years to do so?
DB: It takes a long time to develop new Rare Earths production and, there may have been an assumption after the Rare Earth bubble happened 10 years ago that industry would eventually start to bring that supply along to market but despite all the interest and investment made at the time, the only company that really got there was Lynas Corporation in Australia.
Most of the other companies, like Avalon, got partway there but couldn’t get to the finish line after the Chinese relaxed the export quotas. Users around the world who were concerned about security of supply sort of breathed a sigh of relief that maybe they didn’t need to invest in creating that supply chain outside of China and the access to capital to finish the job to bring that new supply to market was no longer available. I think they assumed that cash would be, but it just didn’t happen. And then, of course, to have Molycorp in California go bankrupt discourages further investment in new Rare Earth developments in North America.
RW: Are there any US Rare Earth projects that you would consider advanced and significant?
DB: The Mountain Pass Mine is still probably the most advanced project in the United States that was the former Molycorp. After it went bankrupt, new owners tried to develop more supply from it. Ironically, that interest seemed to be controlled by the Chinese.
RW: Would the Pentagon also consider Canadian Rare Earth projects as domestic?
DB: Yes, they have announced that after Prime Minister Trudeau met with President Trump this summer that there had been agreement on collaborating on development of these critical mineral supply chains in North America.
RW: Does that mean that the Pentagon might be interested in your project?
DB: Yes, and we made a submission under the Pentagon program, in July.
RW: If China restricted or banned the sale of Rare Earths to the US, considering the fact that it can take up to 10 years to explore, develop and start a Rare Earths mine, plus the refining, what could the US do in the short-term, or even the long-term?
DB: Getting started sooner rather than later is certainly critical. One thing that has happened was work done on this front in Canada, too. That was research into new extraction technologies that might create efficiencies on recovering Rare Earths from traditional ores and other sources.
I think there is still good potential for finding ways to recover Rare Earth Elements from lower grade sources, and more efficient ways to recover them, refine them and separate them into the individual Rare Earth elements.
RW: With China having a stranglehold on Rare Earths production and refinement, how much influence does politics play in this sector?
DB: Obviously, a lot with China playing the Rare Earths card as a strategic weapon in their trade negotiations with the United States, as they did 10 years ago in the confrontation they had with Japan over sovereignty of the South China Sea.
Clearly, they’ve indicated they are thinking in terms of using that control for political purposes and have demonstrated it yet again; furthermore, it’s not just Rare Earths, it’s other critical minerals out there that they have control over as well. So, the less the United States are vulnerable for supply disruptions with a number of strategic commodities, the better.
RW: A few years ago, many junior explorers jumped onto the Rare Earths bandwagon, today there are only a few. Are these abandoned projects just waiting for further exploration and possibly development?
DB: Yes, there are some that can probably be reactivated to pick-up where they left to try to resume down the original path, and certainly our Nechalacho Project is one of those. That’s why we’ve hung onto it, anticipating that there’d be another day for Rare Earths and sure enough, it has arrived, and we also have the opportunity to look at other possibilities on that same project.
RW: Analyst John Kaiser thinks there will be a Rare Earths Mania Two for Rare Earths stocks. Could you comment on that?
DB: There could be. There continues to be a tremendous amount of media coverage of the issue and that’s exactly what we saw in 2010 that created that flurry of speculative interest in 2010/2011. We’re starting to see that again. There is no shortage of commentary out there.
The key is the extraction process and, I think that is something that is not well understood by the public and in the investment community. They think of Rare Earths as just another mined commodity. They’re not. They are very challenging to recover.
Finding the resources is the easy part. And that’s true of a lot of these non-traditional commodities – same with lithium. It’s easy to find the resource but meeting the challenges and costs of extracting and processing them into a form that can ultimately be used in downstream applications is what is needed.
RARE EARTHS COMPANY PROFILES
Appia Energy Corp. [API-CSE; APAAF-OTCQB] is currently focusing on delineating high-grade critical rare earth elements (REE) and uranium on the Alces Lake property in northern Saskatchewan. The 100%-owned, 14,334 hectare property is north of Lake Athabasca and the Athabasca Basin approximately 34 km east of Uranium City and 135 km west of Stony Rapids.
The company recently completed 2,042.1 metres of drilling, in 44 diamond drill holes, in six target areas that were based on geologically and geophysically defined targets.
Earlier drilling at Alces Lake returned encouraging results: Diamond drill hole IV-19-003 was collared 11.5 m southeast of the Ivan surface zone outcrop and intersected 16.10 wt% Total Rare Earth Oxides (TREO) over 11.65 metres core length (true thickness has not been determined) starting at 10.25 metres down hole, which includes a 2.7-metre core length section that returned 31.04 wt% TREO starting at 13.3 metres down hole.
The monazite-bearing mineralization system was intersected in 40 of the holes in all target areas except AL. High concentrations of locally banded to massive monazite were observed in 20 of the holes in target areas CH, DT, IV and RI. Based on previous outcrop and drill core sample studies, the rare earth elements are hosted within the mineral monazite.
James Sykes, Vice-President, Exploration and Development, said, “We defined monazite mineralization in three new areas (Dante, Mikaela and Richard) and also intersected new sub-surface zones exhibiting high concentrations of monazite within Dante, Ivan and Richard. The mineralization system continues to prove to be extensive, with multiple new discoveries, as well as over a 90% drill hole intersection success rate. The widespread nature of monazite indicates the mineralization system is far more extensive beneath the surface than what we’ve observed thus far.”
Recent drilling results from Alces Lake included 16.06% wt% TREO over 15.55 metres, including 49.17% wt% TREO over 3.7 metres in hole IV-19-012.
Avalon Advanced Materials Inc. [AVL-TSX; AVLNF-OTCQX; OU5-FSE] has been advancing the Nechalacho Rare Earth Elements property at Thor Lake, Northwest Territories. Based on a positive 2013 Feasibility Study, the property has potential for economic recovery of the heavy Rare Earth Elements (REE), neodymium, praseodymium, lithium, zirconium, beryllium, niobium and tantalum. Avalon initially focused on the heavy REE-rich Basal Zone deposit (2008-2013), the subject of the 2013 Feasibility Study.
The presence of high-grade, near surface neodymium-praseodymium and dysprosium resources in the T-Zone and Tardiff zones provide the potential for near term, small scale development to produce Nd-Pr-rich concentrates for export. In January 2019, Avalon and Cheetah Resources Pty Ltd. signed a binding terms sheet under which Cheetah would acquire ownership of the T-Zone and Tardiff Zone resources for $5 million, with the definitive agreement completed in June.
Avalon retains its ownership of resources below 150 metres (including the Basal Zone deposit) and will continue to have access to the property for exploration, development and mining. Avalon will also continue to manage Nechalacho work programs and retain its 3% NSR royalty.
“We looked at one specific zone as a resource because of its unusual enrichment in the heavy Rare Earths,” said Bubar, “but there are other resources on the property that we did not do much work on that have good potential for near term production of the more in-demand, light Rare Earths – neodymium and praseodymium – and we announced a partnership arrangement we’ve entered into with an Australian group [Cheetah] who are going to finance getting something started there, in the near term, at a small scale, to initiate some production there.”
He added, “We’re focused on one particular resource in our new partnership with Cheetah called the T-Zone that had some work done on it historically in the 1980s by a predecessor company called Highwood Resources.”
Bubar explained that it is basically a polymetallic rare metals deposit. “They looked at it primarily for beryllium, but there is another zone that is primarily enriched in rare earth elements that’s right at the surface, and because it has got very simple course grade minerology, looks ideally suited for applying new sensor-based ore-sorting technology, a dry-processing technology that is relatively inexpensive to make a concentrate that can then be shipped elsewhere for the next stage in processing to concentrate the rare earth elements.”
Summarizing, Bubar said, “It offers a relatively, simple, quick path to getting something started there that we think we can build on together with Cheetah and to build a larger operation down the road as we get established in the market and market demand grows.”
Commerce Resources Corp. [CCE-TSXV; CMRZF-OTC; D7H-FSE] has been steadily advancing the 100%-owned Ashram Rare Earth Element deposit 130 km south of Kuujjuaq, northern Quebec, a major high-grade, large tonnage rare earth deposit, with middle and heavy rare earth enrichment confirmed.
A positive May 2012 Preliminary Economic Assessment indicated a 4,000 tonne-per-day open pit operation with a 25-year mine life. Pilot plant studies have been undertaken. Simple mineralogy is amenable to reproducible high-grade mineral concentrates (fundamental to low-cost processing) with a 42% TREO at 76% recovery, 46% TREO at 71% recovery, and 49% TREO at 63% recovery. Monazite, bastnaesite, and xenotime rare earth mineralogy all share conventional processing characteristics. Fluorspar is a potential by-product.
Ashram has one of the highest grades of the large tonnage, advanced-stage REE deposits with Measured Resources of 1.6 million tonnes (Mt) at 1.77% TREO, Indicated resources of 28 Mt at 1.90% TREO, and an Inferred resource of 220 Mt at 1.88% TREO.
In early August, Commerce received a final report from Université Laval for recently completed mineral processing work. This work was part of a larger metallurgical program using an alternative flowsheet approach to validate a software model to simulate the solvent extraction separation of REEs processing developed by Laval. Several laboratory bench-scale tests confirmed the viability of the process through the production of several grams of mixed light (La-Nd) rare earth oxide. A Pre-feasibility Study is underway at the Ashram Project.
Defense Metals Inc. [DEFN-TSXV; DFMTF-OTCQB; 35D-FSE] is conducting the 2019 diamond drill program at its 1,780-hectare Wicheeda Rare Earth Element (REE) Project northeast of Prince George, British Columbia.
The 2,000-metre core drilling program, expected to take about six weeks, is designed to further delineate, and potentially expand the Wicheeda REE carbonatite deposit leading to completion of an updated mineral resource estimate. Drilling will test the northern, southern and western extent of the Wicheeda deposit where it is still open; further delineate the relatively higher-grade near surface dolomite carbonatite unit; and address select internal drilling gaps within the deposit.
In 2008, drill hole WI08-04 returned 98.16 metres averaging 1.56% Ce (cerium), 0.72% La (lanthanum), and 0.26% Nd (neodymium) (2.54% LREE) from surface.
The current Wicheeda REE deposit resource comprises Inferred resource of 11,370,000 tonnes averaging 1.96% LREE (Light Rare Earth Elements), reported at a cut-off grade of 1.0% LREE (sum of cerium, lanthanum, neodymium and samarium percentages). A 2009 drill hole, WI09-07, returned 105 metres averaging 1.50% Ce, 0.63% La, and 0.30% Nd (2.43% LREE) from surface.
Following completion of a planned Phase 1A flotation test work, Phase 2 pilot plant processing of 30 tonne bulk sample will begin. There is good infrastructure in the area.
Hudson Resources Inc. [HUD-TSXV; HUDRF-OTC] has a positive PEA for its 100%-owned Sarfartoq rare earths project near Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. In a press release, the company stated: “In light of recent trade tensions between the US and China and its implications on rare earth availability outside of China, Hudson is reviewing activities with respect to its Sarfartoq Carbonatite Rare Earth Element (REE) project.”
Hudson believes the best option is to find a partner to develop the deposit which is located within 20 km of tidewater and only 60 km from Greenland’s international airport.
A 2011 PEA was based on the production of 6,500 tonnes per annum of rare earth carbonatite concentrate of 42-45% REO. This study was based solely on the NI 43-101 mineral resource estimate of January 4, 2011 which defined an inferred resource of 14.1M tonnes averaging 1.51% total rare earth oxides (TREO) and did not incorporate 2011 or 2012 drill results.
Medallion Resources Ltd. [MDL-TSXV; MLLOF-OTC; MRD-FSE], based in Vancouver, BC, reports that the Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC) has successfully concluded the final major testwork program for Medallion’s rare-earth element (REE) extraction process. Medallion is developing the process and business model to quickly get to REE production in North America by processing by-product monazite sand.
“This program’s key work, conducted by the SRC, was to produce and analyze different waste streams from additional ‘crack and leach’ tests on our monazite sand feedstock,” said Kurt Forrester, PhD, Medallion’s metallurgist. “We are now engaging processors, waste management and transportation groups to determine disposal options and costs. This fits with our recently announced plans to commission trade-off studies investigating suitable North American sites for our proposed plant including transportation costs related to feedstock, re-agents and waste material.”
Medallion has received funding from the federal government through the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program in support of this program.
The company has responded to the US Department of Defense’s Request For Information (which includes Canada as a “domestic” source) to put its monazite by-product processing approach as a route to achieving near-term North American production of REEs.
Mkango Resources Ltd. [MKA-TSXV, AIM] reports that the Feasibility Study for the 51%-owned Songwe Hill Rare Earths Project in the Phalombe district of southeast Malawi, Africa, continues to progress, fully financed by strategic partner, Talaxis Ltd., a subsidiary of Noble Group.
Mkango also confirms that the recently shipped 60-tonne bulk rock sample for mineral processing and metallurgical pilot test work studies has now arrived into Fremantle Port in Western Australia. The company said that optimization of the mineral processing flow sheet is progressing well.
In 2014, a positive Prefeasibility Study was completed based on an open pit mining operations with an 18-year mine life. A 2015 update contemplated 2,841 tonnes of REO in concentrate per year. Indicated total TREO is 13.2 million tonnes averaging 1.60% TREO with Inferred resources of 18.6 million tonnes averaging 1.38% TREO.
Rare Element Resources Ltd. [REEMF-OTCQB] has reported additional significant progress on the previously announced third-party pilot scale testwork regarding its proprietary rare earth separation technology. The work is being conducted by Umwelt-und Ingenieurtechnik GmbH Dresden (UIT), an affiliate of Synchron, a significant shareholder of the company. Rare Element hired UIT to conduct a pilot plant campaign last February to verify, at pilot plant scale, all the process steps from the hydrometallurgical process already validated to the final separation of Nd/Pr oxide.
UIT is currently operating a large-scale hydrometallurgical pilot plant in Germany. Preliminary results, using the rare Elements technology, indicate the successful extraction of Nd/Pr and other rare earth elements, contained in a high-purity rare earth oxide (REO).
Ucore Rare Metals Inc. [UCU-TSXV; UURAF-OTCQX] has a 100% ownership in the Bokan-Dotson Ridge Rare Earth Project located 60 km southwest of Ketchikan, Alaska and 140 km northwest of Prince Rupert, British Columbia with direct ocean access to the western seaboard and the Pacific Rim.
A 2012 positive PEA indicated an 11-year mine life. In a May 2015, resource estimate, Indicated resources stood at 4,787,900 tonnes averaging 0.602% TREO. Inferred resources are 1,050,000 tonnes averaging 0.603% TREO.