Energy Fuels, a uranium and vanadium processor based in Utah, said that starting from the first quarter of 2021, it will purchase 2,500 metric tons of monazite sand from Chemours each year for a period of three years. The project may be a small step to help the company reduce the US's dependence on the two main rare earth elements, neodymium and praseodymium.The sand contains an average of 55% rare earth oxides and 0.2% uranium. Energy Fuel Company said it will start the business of producing and selling rare earths, making it the second largest rare earth producer in the United States.Sand is an unusually rich source of valuable neodymium and praseodymium, which are used to make permanent magnets for electric motors and wind turbines. These components are also used in electronic equipment and defense applications.
China has controlled the world's rare earth supply for decades. Although countries such as the United States, Australia, Russia, and Canada have potentially valuable deposits, China has been committed to funding and controlling most downstream processing infrastructure since the 1980s. And it maintains a price advantage that other countries cannot match.The monazite sand that will be used for energy fuel comes from the Offerman mineral sand plant operated by Chemours in southeastern Georgia. It is part of a mineral deposit that also contains ilmenite minerals that Chemours processes to obtain titanium dioxide, which is a white pigment used in paints and coatings. Energy Fuel Company will process sand at the White Mesa plant near Blanding, Utah. President and CEO Mark Chalmers stated that the plant has been in operation for 40 years and has obtained permission to process sand and any waste. Chalmers said it has been set up to extract uranium, and only a small-scale upgrade is planned in 2021 to obtain and enrich rare earth oxides.
The next step is to design and build a plant to produce separated neodymium-ase (NdPr) oxide, and possibly cerium, as soon as possible in 2023. The plant will cost about 100 million U.S. dollars and will take 2 years to complete. The company hopes to obtain additional monazite sand from other regions, with a goal of 15,000 tons per year. The only rare earth mine operating in the United States is the Mountain Pass mine in California, which currently produces and sells rare earth concentrates. MP Materials acquired this two-time bankrupt plant and plans to build a separate plant, partly funded by US$9.6 million from the US Department of Defense. Currently, it has shipped materials to China for downstream processing.In addition to energy fuels and MP materials, companies in Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom all hope to provide funding and permits for rare earth separation facilities. An Australian Lynas company operates an oxide separation plant in Malaysia.
James Kennedy, president of Three Consulting, a rare earth consulting company, said that the high NdPr content in monazite sand gives Energy Fuels a greater advantage over MP Materials. Because the sand contains a large amount of radioactive thorium and uranium, its use, handling, and transportation are strictly controlled, not only for safety reasons, but also to avoid the potential use of this material in nuclear weapons. Kennedy said that Chemours and Energy Fuels are rare cases and both have the necessary licenses. However, it will be difficult to get the full value from minerals. Kennedy said that 95% of the value of rare earths is not in oxides, but in metals. China produces metals at low prices because it heavily subsidizes this part of the manufacturing process.Kennedy said: "They just can't give birth to babies, babies are metal." "They will eventually sell products to China like everyone else." A bill introduced by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) outlines Another strategy supported by Kennedy, the bill would establish a cooperative of rare earth supply chain companies and companies that buy magnets. Kennedy insisted that such a system would ensure that technology manufacturers can use cost-competitive magnets, while ensuring that any liability for radioactive waste is covered.Chalmers said Energy Fuels hopes to cooperate with downstream companies to explore the feasibility of manufacturing metals and magnet alloys. "We will begin to seek cooperation with automakers, renewable energy companies and other companies to seek to rebuild the entire U.S. rare earth supply chain."