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US selects Lynas to design heavy rare earth plant

The date of: 2020-04-24
viewed: 1

source:Argus Media

The US defence department is on track to build the first heavy rare earth separation plant outside China in decades, after awarding the tender for phase 1 planning and design work to Australian rare earth producer Lynas.

The location of the project has not been disclosed but is likely to be Texas — Lynas entered into a joint venture in May last year with US rare earth separation company Blue Line, which bought an industrial site in Hondo, Texas. Lynas was widely regarded as the strongest contender for the tender as it already produces around 8pc of global supply of light rare earths for neodymium ferro boron magnets at its Mount Weld mine in Western Australia.

Funds for the project — the amount of which has not been disclosed — will be provided under the US Defence Production Act, which sanctions the purchase of resources or critical technology to restore the domestic industrial base considered essential for national defence.

Heavy rare earths dysprosium, terbium and samarium are vital components in permanent rare earth magnets used in automotive, aerospace and defence applications, electronics and manufacturing. The US currently has no capacity to produce separated rare earths, metals, alloys or magnets and just one facility producing light rare earths, Mountain Pass, which exports its output to China. China produces 80pc of the global supply of rare earth materials and magnets and the only large magnet producer outside China is Japan.

US president Donald Trump signed five memorandums in July last year instructing the defence department to develop US capacity to separate and process heavy rare earths, light rare earths, produce neodymium-iron-born NdFeB magnets, samarium-cobalt magnets and rare earth metals and alloys. After the design and planning work is completed, the project will be reviewed before a final decision is made on building the plant.

Defence and aerospace applications use large amounts of samarium-cobalt magnets, which can withstand high temperatures. There is no production of heavy rare earth samarium outside China and only one project for producing the dysprosium and terbium needed to make neodymium ferro-boron magnets, Australian Northern Minerals' Browns Range in the Northern Territory. The pilot ore processing plant and mine are in care and maintenance because of measures to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic. Production is also suspended at Lynas' large light rare earth separation plant in Malaysia after the government ordered it to temporarily shut down because of the coronavirus. Mining operations continue at Lynas' Mount Weld mine.

Rare earth prices and demand are under growing pressure as Covid-19 weakens the economic outlook. The Argus assessment for min 99pc dysprosium metal is currently at $325-338/kg fob China, down from a 2020 high of $368-383/kg fob in late March. Prices for min 99.9pc terbium metal are at $722-728//kg fob China, down from $765-773/kg fob for most of March.

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