Ucore Secures Supplier for Ketchikan Metals Complex
Core samples from the Bokan-Dotson Ridge project on Prince of Wales Island, where Ucore Rare Metals hopes to mine rare earth elements.
Link by link, a supply chain is being forged for a new industry in Southeast Alaska. Nova Scotia-based Ucore Rare Metals secured a source of feedstock for its Strategic Metals Complex (SMC) in the Ketchikan Gateway Borough to separate into rare earth elements (REE).
One Link at a Time
Neither the SMC nor the next link upstream—an extraction plant in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan—are operational yet. Such is the nature of the young REE industry. Ucore’s facility would be the first of its kind in North America producing commercial quantities of rare earth oxides. Global development of REEs began ramping up in the last couple of decades for two main reasons: first, the popularity of high-tech devices that depend on the materials and, second, the dominance of China, which controls 90 percent of the world’s supply of the vital metals.
Vital Metals is the name of Ucore’s new supplier. The Australian firm began extracting raw REE from its Nechalacho mine in Canada’s Northwest Territories in March. By next year, Vital Metals aims to complete its cracking and leaching plant in Saskatchewan, which will turn the ore into concentrates. From there, plans call for material to be transported by train to the coast, at Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and then shipped 90 nautical miles to Ketchikan for further separation by Ucore.
“Really, Vital Metals is the first one in Canada producing rare earth concentrates,” says Ucore Chairman and CEO Pat Ryan, “and it’s close to Alaska, so we want to be the first to get our hands on that.” He says his company was “trying to find a US-allied feedstock source nearest to Alaska, so Vital Metals makes good sense logistically.” The marriage benefits Vital Metals, too. According to Ryan, “They were looking at the near-term nature of their plans and the available technology, and Ucore is closest to where they needed to be.”
The supply of Canadian REE for Ucore’s SMC is the first step toward a larger project. Ucore is developing the Bokan-Dotson Ridge prospect on Prince of Wales Island for the first dedicated REE mine in Alaska. Eventually, those minerals would be hauled across Clarence Strait to Ketchikan for processing.
Separation is the main hurdle for REE development. Despite the name, the elements are not exactly rare on Earth; they are more abundant than gold or silver, and most 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 new technique to make separation economical. The company acquired a subsidiary that invented a process called RapidSX. As described on the company’s website, the technology combines industry-standard solvent extraction with a column-based arrangement to speed up the chemical kinetics. Where conventional separation would take weeks, Ucore anticipates results in days or hours. The process also accommodates both light and heavy REEs, with the potential for more generalized output.
Light rare earths include elements 59 and 60, praseodymium and neodymium. Ryan explains that Vital Metals can mainly supply those materials, while Ucore is currently in discussions with two or three other suppliers (which he would not disclose) for heavy rare earths, such as elements 65 and 66, terbium and dysprosium. Those four chemicals, Ryan says, can be combined for the types of magnets used in electric vehicle motors and wind turbines.
The memorandum of understanding between Ucore and Vital Metals calls for at least 500 tons per year of concentrates by 2024, expandable to 2,500 tons by 2026.
Ketchikan would become home to a Natural Resource Development Complex, with the potential for wood pellet and mariculture facilities, as well as Ucore’s rare earth separation plant.
To ready its separation complex by 2024, Ucore announced another agreement earlier in October with the Southeast Conference, a regional economic development organization. By leveraging the conference’s authority to access federal grants, Ucore adds another financing stream for the estimated $35 million complex. Ucore would be the anchor tenant in a much grander Natural Resource Development Complex that Southeast Conference envisions for Ketchikan.
In an email, Southeast Conference Executive Director Robert Venables says the broader complex could someday also be the site of aquaculture facilities and, depending on supply availability, a biomass pellet production plant to make heating fuel for the airport or local high school. “Other economic development opportunities could arise as the community looks to fully utilize resources into value-added products,” Venables says, “but we are really focused on Ucore’s project and the local, regional, and national benefits it can offer.”
Exactly where in the Ketchikan Gateway Borough the SMC will be located is, according to Venables, a business decision for Ucore. However, the Southeast Conference will have some input. Ucore Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Mike Schrider says his company “intends to collaborate with Southeast Conference in the location for the complex and to jointly select a location (yet to be determined) that offers the most advantages to the long-term benefits of the prospective partnership, the community, and the potential workforce.”
Although the SMC is a key part of commercializing the Bokan-Dotson Ridge prospect, Ucore sees potential beyond the mine’s estimated eleven-year production lifespan. As the only such processor on the West Coast, the SMC could become the destination for REE concentrates from elsewhere in Canada, REE byproducts from existing Alaska mines, or new REE developments.
“There are no separation docksides on US soil anywhere,” says Ryan. He expects feedstock could come from anywhere in the Pacific Rim, as far away as Australia or the Far East, apart from China. Indeed, the “strategic” part of the SMC is to disrupt China’s near monopoly on world REE supply.
“There’s such a huge demand: $2.98 billion, growing to $16.5 billion by the end of the decade,” Ryan says. He believes the Ucore facility in Ketchikan is just part of meeting that demand.
This year the Alaska Railroad is celebrating 100 years of transportation people and cargo around Alaska. While the railroad is one of the states oldest transporters, it certainly isn’t the only one, and in this issue of Alaska Business we also check in on the Marine Highway, Span Alaska, and the White Pass & Yukon Route. For those interested in Southeast, our focus on that region provides updates on Kensington Mine, Tongass FCU, the troll fishery, and Juneau’s growing landfill.