Geology to Metallurgy of Critical Rare Earths: sustainable development of Nd and HREE deposits

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Camborne School of Mines

Abstract

Rare Earth Elements (REE) are used in many low carbon technologies, ranging from low energy lighting to permanent magnets in large wind turbines and hybrid cars. They are almost ubiquitous: in every smartphone and computer. Yet 97% of World supply comes from a few localities in China. Rare earth prices are volatile and subject to political control, and but substitute materials are difficult to design. The most problematic REEs to source are neodymium and the higher atomic number 'heavy' rare earths - a group dubbed the 'critical rare earths'. However, with many potential rare earth ore deposits in a wide variety of rocks, there is no underlying reason why rare earths should not be readily and relatively cheaply available. The challenge is to find and extract rare earths from the right locations in the most environmentally friendly, cost efficient manner to give a secure, reasonably priced, responsibly sourced supply.

In this project, the UK's geological research experts in rare earth ore deposits team up with leaders in (a) geological fluid compositions and modelling, (b) using fundamental physics and chemistry of minerals to model processes from first principles and (c) materials engineering expertise in extractive metallurgy. This community brings expertise in carbonatites and alkaline rocks, some of the Earth's most extreme rock compositions, which comprise the majority of active exploration projects. The UK has a wealth of experience of study of economic deposits of rare earths (including the World's largest deposit at Bayan Obo in China) which will be harnessed.

The team identify that a key issue is to understand the conditions that concentrate heavy rare earths but create deposits free from thorium and uranium that create radioactive tailings. Results so far from alkaline rocks and carbonatites are contradictory. A workshop will bring together the project team and partners, including a leading Canadian researcher on rare earth mobility, to debate the results and design experiments and modelling that can be done in the UK to solve this problem. Understanding, and then emulating how REE deposits form, may provide us with the best clues to extract REEs from their ores. One important route is to understand the clay-rich deposits in China which provide most of the World's heavy rare earths; they are simple to mine, not radioactive, and need little energy to process. The workshop will consider how these deposits form, how we can use our experimental and modelling expertise to understand them better and predict where companies should explore for them.

The other main problem, restricting development of almost all rare earth projects, is the difficulty of efficient separation of rare earth ore minerals from each other and then extraction of the elements from those ores. A work shop on geometallurgy (linking geology through mining, processing, extractive metallurgy and behaviour in the environment) will be used to explore how geological knowledge can be used (a) to predict the processing and environmental characteristics of different types of ores and (b) to see if any new potential processing methods might be tried, taking advantage of fundamental mineralogical properties. The two workshops link geology to metallurgy, using one to inform the other.

This project will form the basis for an international collaborative consortium bid to NERC. It will also catalyse a long-term UK multidisciplinary network linking rare earth researchers to users, and promote the profile of the UK in this world-wide important field.
Before the team design the research programme, they will consult academic colleagues working on new applications of rare earths and rare earth recycling, plus exploration companies, users further along the up the supply chain and policy makers. This will ensure that the proposals developed have maximum impact on future supply chain security.

Planned Impact

The Rare Earth Elements are vital to many low-carbon technologies, and their security of supply has been the subject of regular political and media discussion for the last 4 years. Research that can reduce their supply risk, through understanding of deposit types and refinement of processing techniques, therefore has the potential for significant impact. We recognise that this research has to be of use to those involved in the supply chain for the REE. For this reason, our first Research Challenge Workshop will be an industry foresight workshop, at which we will connect directly with representatives of mining companies, end-users of the REE, environmental organisations and policy makers, in order to understand their key requirements from the research. This assessment of user requirements will directly inform the preparation of our main grant proposal, ensuring that the research is targeted at those who will use it.

Potential impacts of the consortium grant phase include:
- much more targeted exploration for lowest environmental-impact deposits;
- significant improvements in processing techniques and reduction of environmental impact;
- better understanding of the environmental impact of REE mining and processing;
- greater awareness amongst downstream users about issues of REE sourcing and a much improved ability to make informed choices about future use of REE-bearing products and responsible sourcing of products and materials;
- greater awareness among industry representatives and policy makers that science can provide tangible environmental and economic benefit.
- Reduction in supply risk for the REE as scientific knowledge on exploration and processing is taken up by industrial partners

The PI and Co-Is already have strong contacts with the industry, environmental groups and policy makers, as demonstrated by the letters of support attached to this proposal. This set of contacts will be extended through Research Challenge Workshop 1 and through conferences such as 'Minerals for Life' in June 2013, which is targeted at an audience beyond academia. Our industrial partners include junior mining companies involved in exploration for the REE (Mkango, Namibia Rare Earths and Aziana (via Madagascan subsidiaries)); consultancy companies (Roskill, SRK, Oakdene Hollins); and end-users of the REE (London & Scandinavian Metallurgical Company Ltd, Less Common Metals, both of whom also have mining and exploration interests). We have good links with policy makers through BGS and the Mineralogical Society.

Discussion with these contacts will inform decisions on key aspects of the research programme to be developed, and on how that research should be delivered to be of most use in industry and policy. In all cases, the main focus of our research will be on reduction of future supply risk for the REE, through targeting exploration, improving processing techniques, and reducing the environmental impact. We also intend to work with the SoS Minerals Knowledge Exchange Network and develop a lasting REE-specific network to ensure that information is disseminated to policy makers, the media and the public in a timely, effective way. The BGS-CSM 'Critical Metals Alliance' works with very experienced press officers and both Wall and Goodenough have substantial media experience; we will draw on this to publicise our research as widely as possible.

Organisations

 
Description This grant enabled a group of 16 research scientists plus ten industry partners and 8 overseas research groups to come together and formulate a major research plan to diversify and secure supply of the rare earth elements. The aim is not only to produce a secure supply but to produce a supply that has a very low environmental footprint.
Exploitation Route There are various new projects that are starting as a result of contacts made in this catalyst grant, including academic partnerships and industry-academia partnerships that will help industry partners produce REE more efficiently.
The catalyst grant led to the SoS RARE consortium project, NE/M011429/1 that started in May 2015.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Electronics,Energy,Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

URL https://connect.innovateuk.org/web/geology-to-metallurgy-of-critical-rare-earths/articles
 
Description 1.Results and discussions at the project workshops have been used by companies to a) improve their knowledge of the rare earth supply chain and the issues involved (companies involved in manufacture of alloys and magnets using rare earths) b) improve understanding of their deposits and how best to process them (Exploration companies: Mkango Ltd, Namibia Rare Earths Inc, Nuna Minerals, Tasman Metals Ltd) c) improve knowledge of formation and processing of REE deposits (consultants to international industry) SRK Ltd, Roskill) 2. Techniques developed during the project pilot tests are being used by Imerys Ltd for further research on their products, seeking additional income streams and recovery of critical metals. 3. Results from pilot studies of easily leachable cations are being used by the British Geological Survey in advising on potential rare earth resources in Europe. 4. This catalyst project led directly to the SoS RARE consortium project and further impacts are recorded in connection with the large grant.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Other
Impact Types Societal,Economic,Policy & public services

 
Description NERC Impact Accelerator Account
Amount £17,828 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/L012782/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2014 
End 03/2015
 
Description SoS Minerals programme
Amount £549,872 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/M011429/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2015 
End 04/2019
 
Description SoS RARE 
Organisation British Geological Survey
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution University of Exeter is the lead on this bid. The consortium formed from two NERC Security of Supply of Minerals catalyst grants, GEM-CRE and MMFREE. The consortium made a bid for a full consortium grant.
Collaborator Contribution Partners all contributed to the proposal. There are also 10 industry partners
Impact Consortium research grant proposal to NERC
Start Year 2015
 
Description SoS RARE 
Organisation Colorado School of Mines
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution University of Exeter is the lead on this bid. The consortium formed from two NERC Security of Supply of Minerals catalyst grants, GEM-CRE and MMFREE. The consortium made a bid for a full consortium grant.
Collaborator Contribution Partners all contributed to the proposal. There are also 10 industry partners
Impact Consortium research grant proposal to NERC
Start Year 2015
 
Description SoS RARE 
Organisation Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres
Department Helmholtz Institute Freiberg for Resource Technology
Country Germany 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution University of Exeter is the lead on this bid. The consortium formed from two NERC Security of Supply of Minerals catalyst grants, GEM-CRE and MMFREE. The consortium made a bid for a full consortium grant.
Collaborator Contribution Partners all contributed to the proposal. There are also 10 industry partners
Impact Consortium research grant proposal to NERC
Start Year 2015
 
Description SoS RARE 
Organisation McGill University
Country Canada 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution University of Exeter is the lead on this bid. The consortium formed from two NERC Security of Supply of Minerals catalyst grants, GEM-CRE and MMFREE. The consortium made a bid for a full consortium grant.
Collaborator Contribution Partners all contributed to the proposal. There are also 10 industry partners
Impact Consortium research grant proposal to NERC
Start Year 2015
 
Description SoS RARE 
Organisation Peking University
Country China 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution University of Exeter is the lead on this bid. The consortium formed from two NERC Security of Supply of Minerals catalyst grants, GEM-CRE and MMFREE. The consortium made a bid for a full consortium grant.
Collaborator Contribution Partners all contributed to the proposal. There are also 10 industry partners
Impact Consortium research grant proposal to NERC
Start Year 2015
 
Description SoS RARE 
Organisation University of Brighton
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution University of Exeter is the lead on this bid. The consortium formed from two NERC Security of Supply of Minerals catalyst grants, GEM-CRE and MMFREE. The consortium made a bid for a full consortium grant.
Collaborator Contribution Partners all contributed to the proposal. There are also 10 industry partners
Impact Consortium research grant proposal to NERC
Start Year 2015
 
Description SoS RARE 
Organisation University of Cape Town
Country South Africa 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution University of Exeter is the lead on this bid. The consortium formed from two NERC Security of Supply of Minerals catalyst grants, GEM-CRE and MMFREE. The consortium made a bid for a full consortium grant.
Collaborator Contribution Partners all contributed to the proposal. There are also 10 industry partners
Impact Consortium research grant proposal to NERC
Start Year 2015
 
Description SoS RARE 
Organisation University of Leeds
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution University of Exeter is the lead on this bid. The consortium formed from two NERC Security of Supply of Minerals catalyst grants, GEM-CRE and MMFREE. The consortium made a bid for a full consortium grant.
Collaborator Contribution Partners all contributed to the proposal. There are also 10 industry partners
Impact Consortium research grant proposal to NERC
Start Year 2015
 
Description SoS RARE 
Organisation University of Sao Paulo
Country Brazil 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution University of Exeter is the lead on this bid. The consortium formed from two NERC Security of Supply of Minerals catalyst grants, GEM-CRE and MMFREE. The consortium made a bid for a full consortium grant.
Collaborator Contribution Partners all contributed to the proposal. There are also 10 industry partners
Impact Consortium research grant proposal to NERC
Start Year 2015
 
Description SoS RARE 
Organisation University of Sheffield
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution University of Exeter is the lead on this bid. The consortium formed from two NERC Security of Supply of Minerals catalyst grants, GEM-CRE and MMFREE. The consortium made a bid for a full consortium grant.
Collaborator Contribution Partners all contributed to the proposal. There are also 10 industry partners
Impact Consortium research grant proposal to NERC
Start Year 2015
 
Description SoS RARE 
Organisation University of St Andrews
Department School of Geography & Geosciences
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution University of Exeter is the lead on this bid. The consortium formed from two NERC Security of Supply of Minerals catalyst grants, GEM-CRE and MMFREE. The consortium made a bid for a full consortium grant.
Collaborator Contribution Partners all contributed to the proposal. There are also 10 industry partners
Impact Consortium research grant proposal to NERC
Start Year 2015
 
Company Name Etech Metals 
Description Exploration company for environmental technology metals, including rare earths. Managing Director is project administrator for SoS RARE project. Started up using expertise gained from industry and NERC-funded projects. Industry partner now on SoS RARE project 
Year Established 2015 
Impact Active exploration project for rare earths at Eureka, Namibia
Website http://etechmetals.com/