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Editorial | Revisit rare earth possibilities

The date of: 2021-12-29
viewed: 12
source:The Gleaner

If the world is to have a shot at becoming carbon neutral by 2050 and keep the rise in earth’s temperature to below the tipping point of 1.5⁰ Celsius by the end of the century, it has to involve, scientists say, a massive shift to renewable energy, including people giving up their internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles for electric-powered ones.
Jamaica could probably have a significant hand in this, as well as re-emerge as a strategic player in the global market for minerals, such as it enjoyed in the days when it was the world’s largest producer of bauxite. But for any of this to be possible, government policymakers, scientists at institutions with research capabilities, and the island’s private sector have to urgently begin to think about, and act on, how to cost-effectively extract critical rare earth minerals (REE) from the effluent from alumina production. There are tons of it in so-called red mud lakes near alumina refineries.
Jamaica, of course, has a major stake in preventing earth from becoming hotter. As a small island, with the bulk of its population and economic infrastructure on or near its coasts, Jamaica, like its Caribbean neighbours, is vulnerable to rising sea levels associated with global warming. Already, the island is bearing the brunt of climate change: increasingly unpredictable weather patterns; more violent storms; and more frequent and longer droughts.
Scientists warn that things will get worse for earth unless the rise in the planet’s temperature, compared to the pre-industrial period, is contained to no more than the benchmarked 1.5⁰ Celsius, which it is fast approaching. Achieving this, however, will demand an aggressive reduction in the greenhouse gases humans spew into the atmosphere annually. After last year’s reduction of around five per cent, because of the global recession resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, emissions in 2021 were on track to return to 2019 levels – around 59 gigatons. Power generation, mostly electricity grids, accounts for more than a fifth of overall greenhouse emission. Transportation (14 per cent) is the fourth-biggest emitter, after power, industry and agriculture.
Presently, renewables account for around 40 per cent of the world’s electricity, but energy experts say that this should be up to at least 70 per cent over the next decade for to it be on track for net zero by 2050 – a target that is behind the timetable, despite continued expansion in power generation from renewables – with increases of 11 per cent and 23 per cent, respectively, by wind and solar in 2025.
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The prevalence of electric vehicles, too, continues to grow, but they still account for less than three per cent globally. Most of the world’s big car companies, however, are committed to end the production of ICE vehicles over the next decade.
Renewable power grid and electric vehicles have a few issues in common, although not to the same magnitude. If power grids are to be fully decarbonised, they have to be efficient at ‘storing’ the electricity generated by wind and solar for periods when these sources are not at their most productive – such as at night, or those periods when there is not sufficient wind to turn the turbines. At present, the back-up in these circumstances is fossil fuel-fired generators. While battery and other storage technologies for power grids have substantially improved and got cheaper in recent years, they are not yet at the capacity to fully displace fossil fuel generation. Similarly, the battery technology for electric vehicles (EVs) now gives them competitive range with ICE vehicles, but that technology, too, is still evolving. It is nonetheless clear that these systems, and the materials from which they are manufactured, will increasingly be in demand.
Here is where Jamaica’s potential in REEs is significant. A group of 17 minerals, rare earth elements, are critical to a wide range of technologies – including computers, mobile phones, and the batteries for EVs and wind and solar systems. China produces nearly 60 per cent of the world’s REEs, which is a matter of concern for the United States, given the deepening geostrategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing. Those worries grew even more acute last week when Chinese state-owned companies announced a merger of their rare earth operations. Experts say that the move will give Beijing greater heft as a supplier of the critical minerals.
Red mud, as is the case with raw bauxite, is known to contain rare earth elements and other minerals critical to modern technologies. But the processes for economically extracting these minerals from the effluent from alumina plants wasn’t well developed. Eight years ago, however, the Government’s Jamaica Bauxite Institute (JBI) and Japan’s Nippon Light Metal (NLM) Group partnered on research to solve the problem. It has been reported that they made headway and sought patents for technologies developed and/or advanced in Kingston. The partners, however, never proceeded to the commercial application of these systems, raising questions about their economic competitiveness.
However, early this year DADA Holdings, former owners of Noranda Bauxite, announced a joint venture with a Canadian green technology firm, Enervoxa, to extract REEs from the waste from DADA’s alumina refinery at Gramercy, Louisiana. DADA, at the time, reported that it had “35 million dry ton reserves of mineral-rich residual bauxite” around the refinery, which is the residue of bauxite shipped from Jamaica. It is not clear whether the facility’s new owner, Atlantic Alumina Company, is continuing the Enervoxa deal. There is yet no provenance of Enervoxa’s technology.
This, however, does not mean that Jamaica should pursue its own initiatives. Based on the DADA-Enervoxa statement at the time of their deal, it would be an expensive exercise – they projected an investment of US$800 million. But a verifiably efficient technology can be packaged and brought to market. In that regard, it should not be beyond the capabilities of Jamaican scientists and entrepreneurs, if they develop systems to extract minerals from red mud, to pull such a deal together and find partners with the capital to make it happen commercially. Indeed, researchers at The University of the West Indies should not be constrained by previous efforts by the JBI and NLM. They might even build on it.

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