Plan for UK rare earths facility to 'break dependence on China'

14 December 2020

A company is aiming to create a sustainable magnet supply chain through the development of the UK’s first rare earth materials processing facility.

Pensana Rare Earth said it intended to build the facility at The Saltend Chemicals Park in Yorkshire to meet soaring demand in magnets for the offshore wind and electric vehicle industries, and to reduce dependency on China. 

Permission has been granted by planning authorities, “subject to a final investment decision and funding being available”, said Pensana Rare Earth.

The firm claimed it would build the “world’s first sustainable magnet metal supply chain”. It said “EVs are forecast to drive a 350% increase in magnet metal demand in the next five years and offshore wind is projected a demand forecast of 1,500% over the next 20 years”.

The project will be made possible by importing mixed rare earth sulphates from Longonjo mine in Angola, southern Africa, which is set for development in early 2021. 

The Longonjo mine, given a license to mine in May 2020, will use low-carbon power from the nearby Luaca hydro dam.

It will be the first major rare earth mine in over a decade, said Pensana. The last was Australian firm Lynas Corporation’s Mt Weld mine.

Three rare earth metals – dysprosium, neodymium and praseodymium – are commonly used to manufacture magnets for electric vehicle batteries and wind turbine energy generators.

Prices for neodymium and praseodymium, together called “NdPr”, have risen almost 50% in 2020 to $65/kg, up from $41/kg in the last decade. NdPr pricing could move to $100/kg by 2025, according to magnet metal producer Medallion Resources.

Pensana’s said it’s closest competitor by output is US mining and refiner firm MP Materials, valued at $1.5bn. MP Materials owns and operates the US Mountain Pass mine and processing facilities. It was given $9.6m by the US government last month as part of $12.7m in funding to support three US rare earth producers in efforts to break China’s dominance on the market, reported the South China Morning Post.

The US also signed an executive order under the president Donald Trump this year “declaring a national emergency in the mining industry,” aimed at “incentivising the domestic production of rare earth minerals critical for military technologies while reducing American dependence on China”.

China controlled 90% of the rare earth elements and rare minerals supply in 2019, according to industrial firm TechMet.

Paul Atherley, chairman at Pensana Rare Earths, said: “It is very clear that it is no longer acceptable for British and European companies to import the raw materials critical to the green economy from unsustainable sources.

“The Saltend facility has the potential to become a world class producer of rare earth oxides and to help establish a sustainable supply chain for the manufacture of powerful permanent magnets critical for the offshore wind and electric vehicle industries in the UK and Europe.”

Gerry Grimstone, UK minister for investment, said: “We very much welcome the proposal to establish a fully sustainable rare earth oxide magnet metal processing facility in the Humber region. This facility is an important step in the establishment of a permanent magnet supply chain in the UK which could support a range of industries important to building back greener and our net zero ambitions.”

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