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UK rare earth alloy producer LCM completes expansion

The date of: 2019-07-26
viewed: 2

source:Argus Media

UK-based Less Common Metals (LCM), the only rare earth alloy producer outside China and Japan, has started metal production — closing a gap in the magnet supply chain from separated rare earth oxide to metal to alloy to magnet.

'A co-ordinated approach and collaboration between companies and governments is needed for a fully integrated non-Chinese supply chain to be successfully established,' LCM managing director Ian Higgins said.

High performance permanent rare earth magnets are critical to the automotive sector, particularly electric vehicles, consumer electronics and wind power. The trade war between the US and China has raised concerns about security of supply and focused attention on the absence of a manufacturing scale supply chain outside China.

European manufacturing industries consume 12,000 t/yr of light rare earth neodymium-based magnets. But Europe only produces around 1,000 t/yr and these are mainly for niche applications, such as the luxury vehicle segment. The balance comes from China, which produces around 80pc of the world's rare earth materials and magnets.

Following a three-year expansion programme, LCM produces high purity rare earth metals and neodymium-iron-boron and samarium cobalt alloys for the permanent magnet industry at its plant in Cheshire, southern England. It also makes other rare earth alloys including hydrogen storage and master alloys such as yttrium-aluminium and lanthanum-nickel. All of its raw materials, including cobalt, are ethically sourced — a factor that is likely to gain in importance as the transition to electric mobility slowly gathers pace and environmental concerns become a factor in consumers' decisions. The company, which was initially established out of a joint venture with UK-based chemical manufacturer Johnson Matthey was bought by privately-held Indian Ocean Rare Metals in 2015 from defunct junior mining company Great Western Minerals Group.

'The key factor for enabling future growth is stable supply of rare earth oxide raw materials at realistic prices, and LCM is actively working to establish such a supply chain,' Higgins said.

Rare earths are also vital for defence applications and aerospace. Documents were signed in the US this week giving authority to fund the development of a US rare earth supply chain for defence from ore to metal to magnet.

The scale of the task of building a diversified rare earth supply chain that can weather political risks is enormous considering the size of the industries that rely on permanent magnets.

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