Corporate Blog

The Process Race: American Ingenuity is Bringing Materials Production Back to the US

In the latest issue of Nature, there is a comprehensive breakdown of the rapidly developing field of Rare Earths extraction technologies. The burgeoning field has the potential to move the break-even point on numerous global rare earth deposits, creating opportunities for investors and upsetting China’s domination of the market.

Central to the effort is a challenge for chemists. The rare earths are chemically almost identical, generally found together in ore deposits and extremely difficult to separate: the standard method involves some 300 steps and the copious use of hazardous chemicals. China has a network of extraction plants that can undercut any other producer in the world, thanks to the country's historically lax attitude towards costly environmental safeguards, along with factories that incorporate the elements into devices. But if chemists can come up with easier, faster, greener and, above all, cheaper extraction methods, then the balance could shift. Other countries could afford to exploit their own rare-earth deposits, and to recover rare-earth elements from their electronic waste.

The basic extraction technologies began development in the post WW2 nuclear boom, as it became apparent that rare earths were essential in the uranium enrichment process and useful in energy applications. In fact, it wasn’t until a chemist at the University of Iowa named Frank Spedding developed a process to separate rare earth elements from each other through ion exhcange chromography, that applications for the elements started to emerge.

Spedding’s process, which uses polymer beads and sulphuric acid run through a vertical glass column, was scaled to industrial capacity by China. Today, as they become less tolerant to the waste the process creates at that scale, Spedding’s method has become the father of the more modern methods being pioneered today by numerous forward-thinking chemists and metallurgists who are interested in cleaner, more useful extraction of these critical elements.

The Nature article goes on to detail the various methods, both theoretical and applied, that are being developed to conduct rare earth extraction in the rest of the world. The parallel development of multiple methods - a rare earth arms race of sorts - could mean good news for downstream industries that depend on the elements, and for operators of large deposits like Texas Rare Earth Resources.

Get our next TRER news in your email inbox


TRER’s contribution to the REE processing revolution is their joint venture with K-Technologies.
Unmentioned in the Nature article is the fact that most REE deposits are also rich in uranium. Historically, with no efficient means of extracting that uranium in a usable form, the tailings from these projects had the capacity to become an environmental hazard. The Continuous Ion Exchange (CIX) and Continuous Ion Chromatography processes being developed with K-Tech have the capacity to become the first step in a process that would not only efficiently extract rare earths, but also leave a product that can be further refined into uranium oxide useable in energy applications. TRER recently signed an offtake agreement with UG USA Inc., an  American subsidiary of French nuclear giant Areva; the first deal of its kind in the rare earths industry.

As extraction and refining technology improves, making processing of rare earth elements more efficient, cleaner and cheaper, new applications for the elements could well be right around the corner. The company is excited to be part of a rapidly approaching, cleaner, high tech future.