Canada is beginning to supply the world with the minerals necessary for a greener economy with the country’s first rare earth mine to offer concentrated ore.
“Canada and its allies are gaining independence from the rare earth supply chain from China,” said David Connelly of Cheetah Resources, which owns Nechalacho Mine southwest of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories.
Rare earths are a series of elements with strange names such as ytterbium, lanthanum, and gadolinium. They are essential for computers, LED displays, wind turbines, electric cars, and many other products essential to a low-carbon world.
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Some industry analysts expect the rare earths market to grow from $6.8 billion in 2021 to more than $12 billion by 2026.
Nearly 60 percent of the world’s supply of this vital material is produced in China, with Chinese companies owning most of the rest. Until now.
“(Nechalacho) is the only rare earth mine in North America that does not supply China,” Connelly said.
The deposit, which contains 15 different rare earth elements, was discovered in 1983. A proposal to develop the mine went to regulatory agencies more than a decade ago.
This project involved extensive water use and would have produced large waste troughs. The NWT environmental regulator approved the plan, but noted that it would have created significant impacts that would require mitigation.
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The new mine does not use water. Instead, the raw ore is crushed into gravel-sized pieces and passed through a sensor.
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“It’s a large conveyor belt-mounted X-ray machine that separates white quartz from the heavier and denser rare earth ore,” Connelly said.
This center is then moved across Great Slave Lake to the Hay River, northwest by northwest, and from there, rail links take to Saskatoon, where Vital Metals, the company that owns Cheetah, has built a facility to improve the center for the market. The government is developing a research and refining center for rare earths. The first shipments are on their way and expected in June.
Nechalacho’s refined product goes to a customer in Norway, where the individual metals will be separated from each other and processed into metal bars.
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By 2025, Nichalacho hopes to produce 25,000 tons of the concentrate annually. There’s enough ore out there for decades to come, Connelly said.
“It’s multiple generations.”
Connelly said the mine will employ about 150 people in NWT and another 40 in Saskatoon upon full production. Those aren’t huge numbers in mining, but Connelly said it would make a huge difference to the northern economy because most of the workers would be there.
Connelly said more than 40 of the 50 current mine employees live in the North. About 70 percent are indigenous and Cheetah has contracted with Yellowknives Dene First Nation to conduct actual mining at the site.
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Ultimately, Connelly said, Cheetah hopes to secure a share of the stock for indigenous groups in the area.
But Nechalacho isn’t just important to NWT, Connelly said.
He said that having a local source of vital minerals for electric motors will help maintain the country’s automotive sector. He added that it would make it easier for Canada to achieve its climate goals and increase national security by providing a safe source of vital materials.
The federal government says Canada has 13 active rare earth projects. Most are located in Saskatchewan and Quebec, where the only other mine near production is the Kipawa Project, which is owned by the same Australian company that owns Cheetah.
“Canada has some of the largest known (measured and quantified) rare earth reserves and resources in the world,” says a document from Natural Resources Canada.
This report was first published by The Canadian Press on May 22, 2022.
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