Most of us know that Saskatchewan is the world’s richest and largest uranium jurisdiction. But did you know that Rare Earth Elements (REEs) are often found within uranium deposits, making Saskatchewan rich in other elements few of us have even heard of. While these REEs carry significant financial potential, there is currently no economical way to extract them from the uranium, sending these valuable minerals into the tailings ponds and disposing of significant potential value to mining companies and the Saskatchewan economy.
So, what are Rare Earth Elements?
Despite their name, REEs are neither rare nor earths. Some are more abundant than copper, lead, gold and platinum. However, they typically occur in relatively low concentrations so their recovery is not economical.
Although often required in small quantities, REEs have a wide range of applications, including use in hybrid and electric cars, fluorescent lights, plasma screens, portable computers, hand-held electronic devices, wind power generators, permanent magnets, batteries and medical devices. REEs can also have important defense applications, such as jet fighter engines, missile guidance systems, anti-missile defense systems, space-based satellites and communication systems.
Because of this, demand and value for REEs has increased significantly over the past number of years, especially for the heavy kinds. This bodes well for Saskatchewan, as uranium deposits typically have a higher ratio of heavy REEs than most other types of mineral deposits. In fact, around 85 per cent of the REEs in Saskatchewan’s high-grade uranium deposits are thought to be of the heavy kind.
Currently, China produces over 95 per cent of the world’s REEs and supplies about 97 per cent of the world’s demand. However, over the last decade, China has been exporting less. A shortage of some critical REEs is expected due to the discrepancy between the abundance in deposits and the demand from the market. REE recovery and separation from secondary resources can balance the shortfall in a cost-effective way.
What’s being done here in Saskatchewan?
The extraction of REEs from uranium deposits in Saskatchewan has never been looked at seriously as a viable option before due to the fact that there is no cost-effective recovery technology developed for it. The Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC), however, has years of expertise in the development and commercialization of complete REE recovery and separation technologies in Canada. One of its newest developments is the design and commissioning of a heavy REE separation pilot plant that has been developed for this exact purpose.
As mines in Saskatchewan process their own uranium, a solution is left that contains REEs and a number of impurities. This mixture is what is typically sent to tailings ponds. SRC is working to develop technologies that would extract the REEs right at the mine site and then separate them into their individual elements (they are of higher value in this separated form).
SRC is currently developing novel recovery technology, that will extract the RREs directly from the uranium bi-product solution. SRC expects to complete the research and testing required for this within the next year.
SRC developed the individual REE separation technology, over the past three years at its in-house pilot plant. The plant uses many stages of solvent extraction to produce high purity individual heavy REEs from uranium and other primary and secondary resources where applicable. In the future, there may be an opportunity for one central facility that would handle RRE separation for all the mining companies in Saskatchewan as it may not be practical to build a plant at each site. Some areas in Europe already make use of these types of shared separation facilities for typical REE deposits. However, this type of facility for uranium deposits specifically would be a first in the world.
The challenge for SRC going forward is to make these technologies as cost-effective as possible for mining companies and to make the process as simple as possible without impacting current uranium processing at the mine sites.
What are the benefits?
Recovering these REEs from uranium mines in Saskatchewan truly has the potential to create significant economic benefits for both mining companies and the people of Saskatchewan. Once the technologies are complete, they will create a way for mining companies to create a secondary product and increase their revenues, create security for the technology industry, reduce the shortage of heavy REEs in the market and even benefit the environment by removing elements that would otherwise remain in mill tailings. Seems like a win-win for everyone involved.