Pilot plant to process rare earths is on schedule for early 2020
The first rare earth processing plant in the United States is on track to go live in 2020, according to officials at USA Rare Earth, which is working with Texas Mineral Resources Corp to build the plant in Wheatridge, CO, a suburb of Denver.
Currently, China controls about 90 percent of the global rare earth elements markets and for some of the minerals, China has 99 percent control. Even rare earths that are not mined in China are often sent to China for processing.
The United States has emphasized gaining some control of the rare earths it mines and produces and this processing plant is a step in that direction.
“Our Colorado pilot plant will be the first processing facility outside of China with the ability to separate the full range of rare earths — lights, mids and heavies,” said Pini Althaus, chief executive officer of USA Rare Earth.
Althaus said the processing plant will work with ore supplied by Texas Mineral Resources Corp. which owns the Round Top Mine in Hudspeth County, TX about 136 km (85 miles) southeast of El Paso.
“We have one of the largest and most diversified rare earth projects in the world,” Althaus said.
The Denver Post reported that the mine was originally developed for its beryllium in the 1980s with not much thought given to the associated rare earth elements. The ore at the mine is fairly uniform and contains 15 of the 17 rare earth elements, including the ones needed to make the most powerful magnets.
But the ore is also diversified. It has lithium, a critical component in modern batteries, and aluminum sulfates, which are used in water treatment plants. Little of it ends up as a waste product.
The mine will heap leach the ore and extract a concentrate for processing. The technology the pilot plant will use to separate and concentrate rare earth elements is called ion exchange and continuous ion chromatography.
It is well established and some of it dates back to the Manhattan Project, when scientists were trying to come up with a way to purify uranium for use in the atom bomb.
A key task for the Wheat Ridge pilot plant, which will employ up to 15 workers, will be finding a cost-effective way to remove the lithium and aluminum sulfates as well.
“The technology is well-practiced,” said Deepak Malhotra, owner of Resource Development Inc. in Wheat Ridge. “We have to adapt the technology to this ore.”
RDI will set up the pilot plant and hone the process. Althaus said the engineering expertise available through people like Malhorta and the nearby Colorado School of Mines is why USA Rare Earth chose to locate the facility in Wheat Ridge.
USA Rare Earth estimates bringing the mine back into full production will cost $350 million, including leaching and processing facilities. It expects to mine 18 kt/a (20,000 stpy) of ore, which will generate 2,100 t (2,313 st) of marketable rare earth products, plus another 8.8 kt (9,800 st) of lithium carbonate.
Althaus estimates Round Top will operate at a cost of $15 a ton. By contrast, the Mountain Pass Mine in California, formerly owned by Molycorp of Greenwood Village, was producing at $80 a ton.
Photo: Site of the Round Top Mine in Texas