Saskatchewan’s emerging rare earth element (REE) industry has the potential to grow the provincial economy within the next 10 years, according to an expert at the Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC).
“The impact will be huge,’’ says Dr. Muhammad Imran, Vice-President Rare Earth Element Division at SRC. “It will mean jobs. There will be indirect impacts in terms of supplies of equipment from manufacturing industries, the piping industry, the electrical industry, the trucking industry. It will have a very solid impact on the growth of all those industries.’’
In addition to these supply chain business opportunities, the SRC facility is the North American hub for research and development. It’s also the technical support for REE companies investing and building processing businesses in Saskatchewan.
Construction of the SRC Rare Earth Processing Facility in Saskatoon, is on schedule for completion in late 2024, says Dr. Imran. The facility will be the first of its kind in North America to process REEs, a set of 17 metallic elements required to produce a wide range of modern devices including cell phones, electric and hybrid vehicles, military guidance systems, televisions, LED lighting and computer hard drives.
In 2023 the Government of Saskatchewan released its Critical Mineral Strategy. One of the four goals of which is aimed at establishing Saskatchewan as a Rare Earth Element Hub. To coincide with that goal, SRC’s REE facility has received $71 million in provincial funding. Other highlights from the strategy include increasing the Saskatchewan Mineral Exploration Tax Credit to 30 per cent tax—the highest rate in Canada—and enhancing the Targeted Mineral Exploration Incentive from $750,000 to $4 million annually. Both are some of the major steps the Government of Saskatchewan is taking to capture a greater share of mineral exploration in Canada.
China currently produces 90 per cent of the world’s REEs and dominates the supply chain. However, there is a desire to be less reliant on other nations for these critical minerals. North America and Europe want to develop a secure, dependable, and environmentally sustainable source of REEs to be used exclusively in their markets. Dr. Imran says Saskatchewan is well situated to play a leading role in advancing that goal.
“There are many reasons for this,’’ he says. “The most important one is that this is where the resource is. It’s the logical place to kick-start the industry.’’
Naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) is found where REEs are found. Saskatchewan is a world leader in managing radioactive materials, with decades of experience and strong infrastructure developed to handle the licensing, permitting, and transporting of these types of materials. The know-how already exists in Saskatchewan and is a major advantage for the sector. Skilled labour, established supply chain partners, and stable government policy is also prevalent in Saskatchewan to support further development in this area.
Saskatchewan earns additional points for its reputation as the third best mining jurisdiction in the world with a well-trained workforce and strong support industries. Its global status as a leader in the energy sector, meanwhile, illustrates the province is a jurisdiction capable of housing an industry deemed strategically important by Canada, its friends, and allies. While the benefits of this project will be widespread, Dr. Imran hopes many of the gains accrue at home. “I think that it is important for our products to attract further growth in the sector in Saskatchewan. A stronger REE sector in Saskatchewan will be a benefit, not just for Canada, but for international markets as well.’’
There’s yet another important reason why Saskatchewan is a good fit for the project. “Over the past 15 years, SRC has developed a good deal of expertise in the field of REEs, especially in the area of midstream processing – the most valuable link in the REE supply chain,’’ Dr. Imran says. “In fact, the number of REE employees at SRC has grown from about 10 to 45 people in just a couple of years.’’
The REE facility is actually three separate facilities sitting adjacent to each other. The first building contains the Monazite Processing Unit, which will process ore to produce a specific type of mineral containing mixed rare earths. Production then shifts to the second facility, the Solvent Extraction Unit that separates out the high value elements used in production of permanent magnets. The resulting material then goes to a third building that houses the Metals Smelting Unit, which converts the separate oxides into metal ingots.
SRC hit a milestone in August 2022 when it produced the first metal ingots made in Canada during a test run of the Metals Smelting Unit. Initially, the REE facility will not be separating all 17 elements but only those used in the production of permanent magnets. Dr. Imran says SRC will consider separating all 17 elements as demand grows.
Dr. Imran says the facility will be environmentally compliant with no emissions of water or chemicals. China’s Export Control Law left the SRC unable to get solvent extraction technology from there, which meant a need to develop Canadian technology to carry out this important step in REE production. They responded by designing their own proprietary system. “We’re fabricating commercial scale solvent extraction cells – this is the heart of REE processing.’’
Dr. Imran acknowledges there are risks and challenges involved in developing any new industry. But he says REE facility planners are following mitigation strategies to address these potential issues. He says one of the biggest risks is market volatility. The facility aims to immunize its operations from this threat through vertical integration, which will allow the facility to focus on more lucrative aspects of its operations if markets for its other products or services weaken.
Dr. Imran is proud of the project, not only because it will put Saskatchewan on the cutting edge of REE processing. He’s proud of SRC’s commitment to building an operation that meets the highest levels of environmental compliancy.