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Sustainable rare earths separation facility on horizon

29th October 2021

By: Claire O'Reilly

     

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UK-based exploration and development company Pensana, formerly Pensana Rare Earths, is aiming to establish, subject to funding, a world-class, independent and sustainable supply chain of rare-earth metals vital for electric vehicles (EVs), wind turbines and other strategic industries, says African project management and engineering service organisation Paradigm Project Management (PPM).

PPM director Jeremy Clarke explains PPM acts as the owner’s representative as part of the Pensana project team. This covers the integration of the complete project — the Saltend Refinery and Longonjo Mine — in terms of the front-end engineering and design (FEED), as well as completing the feasibility study and managing the detailed design, engineering, procurement, construction, commissioning and production ramp-up.

PPM is also responsible for the development of the capital expenditure estimate, the operating cost budget and the project schedule, in collaboration with Wood, and Snowden Mining Industry Consultants.

“The project study outlines plans to establish the world’s first sustainable rare earths separation facility at the Saltend Chemicals Park, in Humber, in the UK, which will primarily treat material sourced from the Longonjo mine, in Angola.”

Commissioning and production are due to start in the fourth quarter of 2023 in both the UK and Angola.

An interim feasibility study has been completed, with FEED now under way. The final feasibility study will be completed in conjunction with the FEED, in December 2021, while detailed design and construction will begin in January 2022.

The Longonjo mine will treat 1.6-million tonnes a year for 20 years. A target production of about 12 500 t/y of separated rare-earth oxides, including 4 500 t of neodymium and praseodymium (NdPr), represents about 5% of the projected world demand for magnet metals in 2025, Clarke explains.

The feasibility study, based on internationally accepted designs and studies by UK engineering experts Wood, SRK Consulting, Snowden Mining Industry Consultants and PPM, supports a sustainable operation with initial capital expenditure estimated at about $426-million and competitive yearly operating costs of $22/kg of total rare earths produced.

It is expected that the development of the Longonjo mine will provide about 400 jobs and will therefore contribute significantly to the local economy. Pensana is also planning to develop an agricultural programme in liaison with the current land users and local government to ensure local and sustainable food supply to the mine.

Potential Markets

Global concerns about greenhouse-gas-induced environmental changes have prompted governments worldwide to find ways of reducing the impact on the environment, while population growth, coupled with people increasingly transitioning from lower- to middle-income groups, is expected to result in higher levels of demand for consumable materials.

Consequently, the need for alternative approaches to reduce carbon discharge has become a high priority in most countries, with most governments actively considering legislation to promote positive global directives to reduce carbon-based energy production, transport and industrial manufacturing, adds Clarke.

Rare-earth minerals future demand is predicated on the significant growth expected in the automotive and renewable-energy sectors. The rare-earth metals of interest are predominately NdPr, followed by dysprosium and terbium.

These four metals are crucial in the manufacture of permanent magnets, a key component in EV motors and wind turbines. Although other rare-earth metals are also important in a range of manufacturing processes, most of them are more widely available as there is a supply surplus.

Currently, there is not much opportunity for substituting NdPr magnets, given their cost and performance advantages, notes Clarke.

“Therefore, the economic importance of the rare earths value chain becomes obvious by looking at the emerging EV market. Over the past decade, the evolution of technology has resulted in 95% of EVs using permanent magnets in motors, particularly because they provide the highest energy efficiency, which translates into drive range.”

In 2019, about 5 000 t of rare earths permanent magnets were used in EVs worldwide and by 2030, the number may rise to between 40 000 t and 70 000 t on a global level, depending on the anticipated growth scenario, he adds.

This increased demand for rare-earth minerals is reflected in other industries, including in the manufacture of electronics, mobile equipment, refrigeration and energy generation, which bodes well for the development.

Edited by Nadine James
Features Deputy Editor

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