Saskatchewan is leading the way within Canada to accelerate the development of a supply chain of rare earth elements (REEs) that will help meet a growing need around the world.
Rare earth elements are a key component of today’s technology. The smartphone or laptop you might be reading this on contains a battery as well as a monitor with luminescence made possible by REEs. These metallic elements are also needed by industries such as electric vehicles, clean energy, aerospace, defence and more. The need is rapidly growing with China accounting for most of the world’s current supply of refined REEs.
“All major Western jurisdictions are trying to pivot as quickly as possible to be able to compete with the Chinese dominance in the market,” said Mike Crabtree, President and CEO of the Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC).
“Our objective is to be able to develop a complete supply chain in Saskatchewan that broadens out into not only supporting a Canadian supply chain, but a North American one.”
Canada has some of the world’s largest known REE deposits. For example, monazite and bastnaesite are hard rock ores containing rare earth elements such as neodymium, praseodymium, europium, terbium, dysprosium, yttrium and gallium, which have been found in Saskatchewan and surrounding provinces and territories. However, the monazite and bastnaesite must be processed to separate the elements from one another and converted into individual rare earth oxides that can be sold.
The Government of Saskatchewan has invested $51 million in the development of the Rare Earth Processing Facility that is owned and operated by SRC, a research and technology organization that is a Treasury Board Crown Corporation in the province.
Crabtree explains why Saskatchewan is taking the lead.
“Saskatchewan is very well placed – politically, technically, and commercially,” said Crabtree.
“The Government of Saskatchewan made a very conscious decision to be an early leader within Canada – and actually within North America – in the midstream REE processing sector.”
He points to Saskatchewan’s Growth Plan for the Next Decade of Growth 2020 – 2030, a strategy produced by the provincial government that includes goals for REE production and processing.
The government recognized it makes sense for Saskatchewan and SRC to be the ones to seize this opportunity because of its location, but also because of its REE reserves and its expertise and experience.
“Canada, as a whole, has opportunities for the mining of monazite and bastnaesite (another hard rock ore containing REEs), but it only makes economic sense to have a small number of highly specialized processing facilities,” said Crabtree.
“SRC is as a global leader in REE processing and separation technology, and we have been for more than a dozen years.”
That technological expertise and experience has led to establishing a Saskatoon facility that is being developed in two key phases. The first phase involves the Monazite Processing Unit (MPU), which is to be operational in early 2023. The second is around a Solvent Extraction Unit (SXU) to be operational in early 2024.
This facility will benefit junior mining companies in the upstream section of the supply chain because it provides them an opportunity to form offtake agreements. This means they have a buyer for the resource they are producing.
“Junior mining companies – and the majority of them are junior mining companies – are looking to get investment to develop their resource,” said Crabtree.
“If they can show their investors that they have a route to market other than just selling the concentrated ore on the international market, that helps them get that investment and thereby accelerates their development.”
Crabtree points to Appia Energy with its Alces Lake property in northern Saskatchewan as an example. The property has some of the highest-grade total and critical rare earth elements mineralization in the world. The company publicly congratulated SRC on the development of the Rare Earth Processing Facility, saying that being able to have it process the monazite it is producing in close proximity to its Alces Lake property is beneficial to the company and its shareholders.
SRC is hearing from other junior mining companies interested in working with it to supply monazite to be processed in the MPU to produce intermediate a mixed rare earth product that is then converted in the SXU to produce separated rare earth oxides required by the market, Crabtree explained.
There is also a path forward to complete a third phase at the facility – operational at the same time as the SXU.
“What became clear as we started to move forward with the process was, that for relatively little additional investment and effort, we could move on to a third phase, which was the conversion of REE to the metal precursors of magnets,” said Crabtree.
“That gave us a really unique proposition, certainly in Canada and currently within North America, around a vertical integration.
“So, its minerals coming in one end and metals coming out the other end of that third-stage process.”
That contributes to the facility being able to accelerate the development of the downstream elements of the REE supply chain as well as begin to establish a REE technology hub in Saskatchewan.
“We think it could be really attractive for Saskatchewan industry to start to move into taking those metals that are produced in the province, in SRC’s facility, and converting them to magnets or to one of the intermediate stages before magnets,” said Crabtree, who anticipates the province attracting companies interested in that opportunity.
He said there has been “substantial response” from original equipment manufacturers interested in what the facility is able to do. SRC is also having conversations with other governments from Canadian provinces as well as U.S. states who want to know about the facility’s objectives as well as how they can align with those objectives.
These relationships are developing, in part, because of the reputation and social license to operate that SRC has developed.
“One of the things that SRC is capable of doing is taking on these large development projects and catalyzing new sectors,” said Crabtree.
“We did it back in the day with uranium. We did it with potash. We did it with diamonds.”
“Now we're moving into rare earths and we're also doing work on lithium. We're also doing work on, believe it or not, things like magnet recycling.”
“So, SRC has the engineering credibility, both with government and industry, to be able to take on take on these projects. We have commercial demonstration projects where we are developing new processes, implementing them, commercializing them, and demonstrating to the sector how it can be done and creating that route forward.”
Crabtree anticipates that in just a few years, there will be notable progress made towards establishing a REE supply chain that has Saskatchewan playing a central role in it. He points to a relationship that has developed for SRC as it looks to catalyze the REE supply chain as evidence of how quickly this will develop.
That relationship is with Cheetah Resources, a subsidiary of Vital Metals.
“There's a lot of collaboration and cooperation there,” said Crabtree.
Vital will have its own rare earth extraction plant alongside SRC’s facility in Saskatoon. Last year, First Nations mining contractor Nahanni Construction Ltd. began producing rare earth carbonate products from concentrates in Northwest Territories at Cheetah Resource’s’ Nechalacho project. That will be sent to the Vital plant, which will work with SRC’s facility.
“Their plant is essentially a first-phase plant. Once our second phase comes up, they could flow that through our second phase plant,” said Crabtree.
“So, you can see how, even now before we're operational, it is starting to build that that sector out here.
“I think that we will see very significant growth within a five-year horizon.”