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Secure European Critical Rare Earth Elements

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - SecREEts (Secure European Critical Rare Earth Elements)

Période du rapport: 2019-12-01 au 2021-05-31

Problem/issue being addressed:
Currently, the global mining of rare earth elements (REE) is in the range of 220 - 240 000 tonnes according to the US Gelogical Survay (USGS). Top 4 mining countries are China, USA, Myanmar (Burma) and Australia. The production of individual REE is dominated by China where most of the separation is taking place. Concentrate from USA is currently shipped to China for refining. The mineral concentrate from Australia is refined outside China, in Malaysia. As no mining of rare earths are currently taking place in Europe, EU is 100 % dependent on import. SecREEts will create an integrated value chain for production of rare earth elements in Europe based on process demonstrations in three pilots. Rare earth concentrate will be extracted from fertiliser production followed by separation into individual rare earth oxides using a novel separation technology. Nd, Pr, and Dy oxides will be converted to metals for high strength permanent magnets in state-of-the-art pilot electrowinning cells. Hence, the aim of SecREEts is to provide an integrated value chain for rare earth elements in Europe and will provide part of the solution for a secure supply of rare earth elements in Europe.
Important for society:
European high technology industry is heavily relying on rare earth elements. Major uses in Europe is permanent magnets, catalysts and metallurgical alloys. The high strength, small sized magnets obtained using rare earth metals are critical in a wide range of applications, including many applications in the green revolution. Some typical uses are electrical motors and generators, valves, sensors, and medical instruments. Many of the advanced products produced in Europe rely on a secure supply of rare earth elements and shortage of these critical materials may severely jeopardise many jobs in Europe.
Overall objectives:
The overall objective of the SecREEts project is to pave the road for a sustainable and economical production of rare earth elements in Europe, that way secure the most critical parts of European manufacturing of products dependent on rare earth elements.
In the first period of the project, the main activities have been focused on design, construction and commissioning of the pilot lines, more specifically the extraction of a rare earth concentrate, the various separation steps to produce individual rare earth oxides and the state-of-the-art electrowinning. Several test runs have started in part of the pilots to verify operational performance parameters as well as revealing topics to be addressed for further optimisation of the value chain. All the pilot process steps have been subject to risk assessments, including establishing health and safety measures. Also, outreach and discussions with stakeholders in the neighbouring society of the pilot sites have been initiated to identify needs, objections or suggestions from local community organisations. In addition, the project has arranged a policy council meeting in Brussels.
In the second period, further verification and optimisation of the pilots have been in focus. Good progress have been achieved in all pilot stages and products have been verified according to expectations. Outreach activities have also continued at the local manufacturing sites as well as in other fora. In spite of many hurdles and delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the project has continued with high focus on activities directed towards reaching the main objectives of verifying the processes.
Establishing a new value chain in Europe based on already mined ore for fertiliser production represents by far the lowest environmental footprint of rare earth extraction globally. The extraction is not creating any new mining or new waste which are in contrast to traditional concentrate production that is creating significant environmental impact through discharge of hazardous solutions and emissions. The extraction potential in the current fertiliser plant is in the range of 2-3 000 tonnes REE/year, equivalent to about 600 tonnes of Nd-Pr-Dy. For comparison, this is extraction from less than 0.5 % of the phosphate rock used in fertiliser production globally. Hence, replication potential in other fertiliser plants using the nitrophosphate route (ODDA process) is feasible. The cerium depleated rare earth concentrate from the fertiliser plant is supplied to the separation plant where the remaining cerium is removed before the individual rare earth elements are separated. The novel separation concept is by far more environmentally friendly than existing liquid-liquid extraction based on organic solvents and complexing agents. Additionally, the separation plant can take other concentrates, e.g. recycled materials as well as concentrate from other processes. The electrowinning of rare earth metals is based on novel concepts to improve efficiency and reduce environmental impact of the process. In addition, the metal will be strip cast and hydrogen decrepitated before being supplied to downstream magnet manufacturing.
Besides securing rare earth production in Europe, the expected outcome is also creating new and securing existing jobs in Europe, reduce the import risks and support the growing green technology industry in Europe. Overall, this will strengthen Europe as resource efficient and environmentally conscious area of the earth.
SecREEts Work Packages - Value Chain, Risk Assessment and Public Engagement
SecREEts Overall Concept - Integrated Value Chain and Replication Potential