Ucore aims to start construction of rare earths facility by ‘23
A Canadian metals exploration and technology firm has solidified its plan to disrupt China’s control over increasingly critical metal supply chains and Southeast Alaska is at the center of it.
Leaders of Nova Scotia-based Ucore Rare Metals Inc. highlighted their “Alaska 2023” plan to complete a $35 million rare earth metals processing plant in Ketchikan by the end of the namesake year during a May 11 videoconference presentation hosted by the Alaska Support Industry Alliance. Ucore chose the Southeast town for its proximity to the Bokan Mountain-Dotson Ridge rare earth mine prospect on nearby Prince of Wales Island, which the company has held since 2007.
CEO Pat Ryan said the schedule is “aggressive,” but the company hopes to use revenue from the metals processing facility to support development of a small underground rare earth mine. If developed today, the Bokan project would be just the second rare earth mine in the country.
As it stands, Bokan is an advanced-stage prospect that the company largely set aside after a 2015 drop in prices for rare earth metals. Ucore leaders at the time shifted their focus to developing the Ketchikan SMC — in which they hope to deploy an emerging, proprietary metals separation technology dubbed “RapidSX” — to be ready to jump into the burgeoning rare earth supply chain when prices improved.
It appears that time is rapidly approaching.
Company leaders announced May 4 that they began testing the RapidSX technology under an agreement with a rare earth producer. They expect the design for a commercial-scale system to be ready early next year if the current tests go well, according to the May 4 statement.
Ucore Vice President Mike Schrider said rare earth prices started to increase significantly last year and the company is tracking them so it is ready to restart work on the mine when metal prices justify it. With much of the resource delineation complete, Ucore can have Bokan “near shovel-ready” within 30 months of reaching a financing agreement for the mine, he said.
In 2014, the Legislature approved the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority to issue up to $145 million in bonds to help finance the Bokan project. Ucore estimated in 2013 that the mine would cost about $220 million to develop.
Company leaders said they are currently in discussions with AIDEA officials for financing the Ketchikan SMC.
An AIDEA spokeswoman did not respond to questions about talks with Ucore in time for this story, but authority leaders have regularly voiced general support for developing Bokan.
Ucore’s value-added rare earth plan could put Alaska on a path to help underpin the country’s clean energy revolution in much the same way the North Slope did with oil decades ago, according to Ryan.
“The new oil or the new gas for the future are these critical (rare) metals,” he said.
Currently, China controls roughly 80 percent of global available rare earth resources, Ryan said, which is potentially problematic given the particular need for them in electric vehicle batteries and motors.
It’s because of China’s control over those markets that Ryan said Ucore is working to integrate multiple aspects of the supply chain into its business.
“If we don’t do something to regain and recapture the supply chain in North America, in the U.S., it will be lost to China,” he said, insisting that Chinese government officials strategically aimed to the middle of the rare earth supply chain — processing concentrates into metal oxides —to influence the broader downstream markets.
“China’s forcing people to set up (rare earth metals processing) in China,” Ryan added.
Shipping concentrates to China forgoes upwards of half the total value in the supply chain, he said.
The Bokan Mountain prospect holds more than 4.7 million metric tons of indicated rare earth ore, according to a 2015 resource assessment. That translates to approximately 63.5 million pounds of collective rare earth metals, according to Ucore, which are used in a plethora of high-tech applications, from smartphones to advanced batteries and fighter jets.
There are 17 minerals defined as rare earth elements, but “heavy” rare earths — such as europium, terbium, and ytterbium with a greater atomic weight — are the most sought after and are used in products that rely on high-temperature magnets. More common lighter rare earths are used in a range of applications including LED displays. Heavy rare earths account for roughly 40 percent of the mineralization at Bokan, according to Ucore.
The company hopes to utilize “allied” rare earth feedstock from mines in Brazil, Australia, or the Mountain Pass mine in California, among others, to supply the SMC until the Bokan mine is producing, according to Schrider, who said the feedstock supplies would eventually be blended for oxide production.
The company’s economic modeling shows it can be competitive in rare earth oxide markets with its RapidSX separation technology, which uses the same metallurgical processes as traditional plants but does it on a much smaller footprint and at a much lower cost, Ryan said.
He described a typical rare earth processing facility as being roughly the size of a football field, while the Ketchikan SMC would fit “in the Red Zone,” or the last 20 yards, he said.
Ryan emphasized that Ucore’s biggest hurdle isn’t financing — he’s confident in what they’re developing — rather, it’s China realizing they could lose control of a valuable geopolitical tool.
“When they see what’s developing, we’ll have to have our supply chain all wrapped up,” he said, stressing the company will then need political support to keep Chinese government officials from working to unravel what they’ve put together.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].