Dignitaries, politicians and Indigenous groups from the Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan and Norway will be in Saskatoon Tuesday for the unveiling of a $20-million rare earth processing plant.
The plant will handle rare earths from the Nechalacho mining project in the N.W.T., nearly 2,000 kilometres away.
The Nechalacho operation, owned by Cheetah Resources, a subsidiary of Australian company Vital Metals, has been operating since 2021. It’s the first rare earth operation in Canada and only the second in North America.
David Connelly, Vital Metals vice president of strategy and corporate affairs, said the decision to process the materials in Saskatoon mostly came down to economics and speed.
“There’s two issues: the cost of power,” he said. “Your biggest cost in processing minerals is the cost of power.”
The second issue, he said, is about permit processing.
“What takes five, six, seven years in the Northwest Territories takes months in Saskatchewan,” Connelly said. “And it’s not as if they have reduced the number of hurdles. They just have a more efficient and effective way of moving through the process.”
Members of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation look at the first bastnaesite concentrate produced in July 2021 at the Nechalacho project near Yellowknife. (Bill Braden/Vital Metals Ltd., Cheetah Resources Corp.)
The plant is still in its construction phase with several critical pieces of equipment having been installed in the last month. That equipment will help turn the mixed rare earth concentrate from Nechalacho into a mixed rare earth carbonate. That will then be shipped to Norway for further processing before making its way to Germany to be used in electric vehicles.
The company began shipping concentrated ore by rail from Hay River, N.W.T., in April.
The term rare earth elements is used to describe 17 metallic elements, including the 15 lanthanide chemical elements, as well as scandium and yttrium.
These elements, which tend to occur in the same ore deposits, are extremely valuable for a number of industrial uses such as clean energy, aerospace and auto making, but the catch is that they come in low concentrations. The largest global use for the elements is to produce permanent magnets in electric vehicle motors.
China dominates the rare earth market with annual production estimated at 127,000 tonnes in 2020, accounting for almost 60 per cent of global production. The United States (34,000 tonnes), Myanmar (27,000 tonnes) and Australia (15,000 tonnes) are also major world players.
In Canada, there are currently 21 rare earth mining projects in various stages of development, from exploration to resource estimation. They are in the Northwest Territories, Quebec, Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, Alberta and in Saskatchewan, according to Natural Resources Canada.