Industry Q&A: What's next for the Rare Earth Industry?
Posted: 05/01/2011 12:00:00 AM EDT | 0
What's next for the rare earths industry?
Mining IQ recently interviewed Anna Littleboy, Acting Director for Minerals Down Under National Research Flagship from the CSIRO.
Anna is a geologist by background. Her early career was spent actually really working on environmental risk assessments, particularly looking at contaminant transport from different forms of deposits, but for the last 7 years, she has been working here in Australia for CSIRO, particularly looking at building up a program of transformation research to support the minerals industry in Australia and to make sure that we continue to get national benefit from those minerals we’ve got over here.
QUESTION: Establishing a successful processing supply chain especially in the metallurgical side of this is costly and can be really difficult. So, are there any ways to reduce cost and yet simplify procedures?
ANNA: Well, one of the things about the processing and extraction of rare-earth element. There are a lot of different rare-earth elements of interest in today’s modern manufacturing industry, and one of the things about them is that chemically, they actually behave in quite a similar fashion, so it can be difficult to separate them as you get them out of the ground, but a lot of the research that’s being done through organisations such as these are really looking at something called synergistic solvent extraction which is where by using this combination of different chemicals, you can really begin to get some great sophisticated separation of different elements from all that you get out of the ground, and I think that is really one example of where research can help unite metallurgical processing of rare earth a lot more efficient.
Some of the other things that can be looked at are how can we get this stuff out of the ground? Generally speaking, you’re actually getting out a large volume of rare earth out of the ground but taking quite a large volume of material. So there are some ways that we can get better at only taking out what we need, particularly where rare earth or associated with things like minerals sand which are kind of unconsolidated deposit, so if you start extracting it from the ground, you’re digging a big hole already. So, there are some things we can do to really get much more targeted about concentrating the rare earth so that we’re only taking what we need at the ground, not a whole load of other material at the same time. So those are the kinds of things that we can begin to look at to improve the extraction and processing part of the rare earth supply chain.
QUESTION: Great. That’s so interesting. There are, as you know, environmental concerns when it comes to rare earth and strategy methods, but are there any methods or strategies that can be employed to lessen their environmental impact?
ANNA: Well, I guess, the kind of environmental concerns that people talk about in connection with rare earth are not similar to the environmental concerns, but there can be about many of our other commodities, so there are concerns around dust and there are concerns around using aggressive chemicals as part of the extraction process. So many of the environmental solutions are similar to those that are being explored for other commodity assignments, can we get clever about mitigating the production of dust from the mining and minerals process? Can we get better about making sure the dust doesn’t arrive in the first place? If it does arrive, can we capture it somehow and can we even get some value out of it? And you know, there are a whole load of solutions to that ranging from for example water being used for the suppression in open cut coalmines right the way through a sea of people who have been very, very sophisticated filter mechanisms to sort of catch and capture dust particularly the sort of small particulate fraction which is often the one that causes the most concern environmentally.
Where there are interesting and aggressive chemicals being used as part of the extraction process, these are again is about how can we make sure that these chemicals are contained and is there anything that we can do to ensure that we don’t have to use those chemicals in the first place. For example, in gold processing; there’s a lot of research looking at can we replace the use of cyanide solutions with a thiosulfate solution. A thiosulfate solution is the kind of stuff that’s the kind of milkshake you get if you go and order a strawberry milkshake.
So, there are solutions being developed to manage and contain and prevent a whole load of the environmental concerns that can arise around any form of mining on minerals. And with rare earth, there are issues around the role and the use of strong acids and there are issues around how can we neutralise from using alternative reagents that can go in or that can be tried for their effect.
QUESTION: The majority of mining companies and exporting companies are investing in geological and metallurgical consultants, so what advice do you have for these companies with using such consultants then?
ANNA: Well, look… I mean, this isn’t really an area where CSIRO have that expertise, but one of the things that clearly is important and larger companies would notice is that we do have a wealth of knowledge around the distribution and the nature of Australia’s rare earth resources held by Geoscience Australia or by the respective state geological survey, and they’ve been doing a lot of work lately to try and pull out information together into an easily accessible set of information for people who were working to look for and begin improving up rare earth deposits in Australia. So, I think knowledge of the information base that is available through the Geoscience Australia roots and geological survey roots obviously very, very important. And I guess the other thing is that if I say we talk about strategic minerals, we talk about rare-earth elements, but each chemical within that spectrum is very different, they occur in a range of different geological environment. So most projects around rare earth have to be developed in a fairly project-specific way, and I think having someone who understands both the similarity in the behavior of different rare-earth elements, but also the diversity of the environment in which you can find rare earth is quite important as we move forward.
QUESTION: Great. So now, I guess our final question for today, what do you think will be next for the rare earth industry?
ANNA: That’s a difficult one to call, I think one of the things that fascinates me about rare earth industry is the fact that the reason for the burgeoning demand with it at the moment is around the use of different rare-earth elements in our digital future and in manufacturing, particularly many aspects of premanufacturing hybrid cars, new systems in magnets, strong magnets to come working in a number of areas, and components for energy generation. So with this in mind, the demand for rare earth is very much tied up with the production of modern 21st century appliance in manufacturing, and I think one of the things that we will see as we continue to move and strive if you like for a sustainable future is increasing attention paid on how can we recover the valuable elements in these components once they have gone through their lifetime. So can we actually move to a position where the rare earth industry is actually supported through the recycling of rare earth as the manufactured goods that they’re using reach the end of their useful life and get recycled rare earth, get extracted back from that, and then can be reused in a new generation of products. I’d really like to see that to working very effectively on a global basis and a globally competitive pace.
MINING IQ THANKS ANNA FOR HER COMMENTARY:
Anna Littleboy, acting director for Minerals Down Under National Research Flagship from the CSIRO is also presenting at Rare Earths and Strategic Metals in Sydney in June 2011. For more information about the event, please visit www.RareEarthsandStrategicMetals.com.au or contact us on 02 9229 1000 or enquire@IQPC.com.au.
Interview conducted by Arthur Chan of Mining IQ.
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