Ucore Scales Up Demonstration Plant for Rare Earth Separation
A rendering of a fifty-one-stage demonstration plant.
As 2022 began, Ucore and its partners had planned, designed, and ordered equipment to construct a demonstration plant with an eighteen-stage manifold through its trademarked RapidSX process. However, an independent evaluation by Dr. Ahmad Ghahreman of AG Hydrometallurgy Services concluded that a RapidSX production plant can potentially have a two-thirds smaller footprint than a conventional solvent extraction facility with the same throughput.
In light of those results, the company’s stakeholders agreed to expand the demonstration plant to fifty-one stages rather than progress through smaller increments. Ucore says the redesign allows for enhanced capability to achieve broader objectives in 2022.
By 2023, Ucore aims to build its Strategic Metals Complex (SMC) in Ketchikan, which would be the first of its kind in North America producing commercial quantities of rare earth oxides. At first, raw material would come from an extraction plant being developed in Saskatchewan by Vital Metals, an Australian firm mining REE from Canada’s Northwest Territories. Eventually, Ucore plans to supply the SMC with ore from its own Bokan-Dotson Ridge mineral deposit near the southern tip of Prince of Wales Island.
Ucore’s stated goal is to create a North American supply chain for REE, a global market currently dominated by China. The company describes Bokan-Dotson Ridge as having the highest grade heavy REE resources in the United States, particularly terbium and dysprosium oxides, two elements associated with permanent magnet synchronous motors used in electric vehicles.
Rare earths, despite the name, are not exactly rare on Earth; they are more abundant than gold or silver, and most of the elements are more abundant than such ordinary metals as nickel, tin, or lead. However, the chemical properties of REE prevent them from accumulating in rich veins, and, where they are found, they are typically mixed and difficult to isolate.
Ucore is counting on a RapidSX to make separation economical, acquiring the company that invented the technique, Innovation Metals.
“Ucore is in the unique position of having access to one of the world’s most advanced and efficient solvent extraction-based REE separation technologies,” says Mike Schrider, Ucore’s vice president and chief operating officer. “The logical pathway was to expand the facility now so that we are ready to make the leap to commercialization within the Strategic Metals Complexes by early next year, along with the benefit of starting product qualification trials with our growing list of potential North American customers.”
RapidSX testing in Kingston, Ontario.
The scaled-up demonstration plant, hosted by Kingston Process Metallurgy in Kingston, Ontario, increases the capabilities of the commercialization and development facility:
- Many feedstock sources, including planned light and heavy REE feedstocks.
- Tens of tonnes of mixed rare earth concentrate on an annual basis.
- All RapidSX splits required to produce individual praseodymium, neodymium, terbium, and dysprosium oxides.
The team aims to start product qualification trials by the end of 2022, producing saleable amounts of REE for alloy makers. Additionally, the companies are conducting a techno-economic assessment and engineering data transfer in support of Ucore’s planned RapidSX deployment in the SMC.
As such, Ucore continues its ongoing engagement with Mech-Chem Associates to develop the specific engineering requirements for all process phases throughout 2022 and into 2023. The result will be a contract design package suitable to execute a design/build construction contract for the SMC, with production commencing in 2024.