Coal Age

MAR 2019

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34 March 2019 rare earths continued billion. The latter is embroiled in liti- gation with the Malaysian government over its Advanced Materials Process- ing plant in East Malaysia. The facility, which has been closed intermittently as the company and the new gov- ernment sort out permitting issues, generates "radioactive waste" in the course of processing REEs, according to Forbes. "The Lynas business model has been controversial since the com- pany opted to mine REE ore at Mount Weld in Western Australia and ship it to Malaysia for processing, triggering claims that Australia was simply ex- porting a radioactive waste problem." Similarly, coal miners opting to process REEs on site would be vol- unteering to manage a radioactive waste problem, Kennedy said. "Min- ers would go bankrupt just managing the thorium liability alone." Honaker said the actinides issue was not insubstantial. "Thorium actually gets tied up in a mineral form as it goes through a smelting process," he said. Uranium gets captured, concentrated and treated as a fine waste material. Fine is the keyword, he said. "It starts out at the parts per million (ppm) level and ends at the ppm level." Marchese disagreed with the as- sessment that the actinide problem nixed the potential economic viability of solutions currently being researched and developed. "No. 1, not all deposits have uranium and thorium," he said. "No. 2, from our research, uranium is not going to be an issue, it is thorium." It is "perfectly legal" to store thori- um, he said. "You are not going to get so much thorium out of this that you can't store it," Marchese said. "And there are processes where you can ac- tually destroy the thorium." One possible solution may be sell- ing thorium to overseas markets, such as India and China, he said. Next, REEs are typically found in miniscule amounts in many types of ore and mining waste, but especially in coal and coal waste. "You are es- sentially going to mine a tailings basin that has regulatory and environmen- tal issues with it for these very small amounts of REEs," Kennedy said. Honaker mostly agreed. "At a typ- ical rare earth deposit, you would express the REEs in it in percent- age points, like 1% to 15%," he said. "However, we're dealing with 0.03%." That translates to 300 to 1,000 ppm. One solution would be to extract other marketable materials as well, Marchese said. "One of the beauties of what we are doing is in addition to pulling out REEs, there are other byproducts. Let's call them industrial minerals for lack of a better term, that we are also able to separate and sell," he said. "If you were relying purely on the REEs, given REE pricing today, I don't think it would be economical." Today's prices will be low com- pared to those of the future when glob- al demand for smart cars, robotics, and advanced computers and weap- ons translates into rocketing demand for REE oxides, Honaker said. "What I've seen in terms of projections by the major car manufacturers, somewhere around 35% of the total car produc- tion in the world by the year 2030 will be electric vehicles," he said. "Each electric vehicle has anywhere from 1 kilogram (kg) to 5 kg of REEs and when you take a look at the number of cars they are expecting, that will far ex- ceed our current annual supply of rare earths in the world." Therefore, "even though you may find certain coal-based REEs not to be economically extractible at this time, it is just like any market-based natu- ral resources industry," Honaker said. "When the market prices reach a cer- tain critical number, all of a sudden it is very attractive." Kennedy said free market econom- ic theory doesn't belong in the conver- sation. "Anybody who is not dealing with China, the 90,000-ton dragon in the room, is delusional," he said. "This is a state-sponsored monopoly that has economic and defense policy goals." China, Kennedy said, "runs a state- sanctioned monopoly that has no in- herent required minimum costs." By monopoly, Kennedy means China has the world's only value chain capable of turning REE concentrates into oxides at a rate and on a scale large enough to meet global demand. China has 2 million-person cities pur- pose-built to house that value chain. To get access to the needed REE ox- ides at the lowest possible cost, tech companies from around the world move to China, putting their intellec- Two gas-fired kilns used to process REE concentrates at the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant, which has been intermittently closed as the new Malaysian government urges the company to solve what has been called a "radioactive waste" issue. (Image: Lynas Corp.)

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