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Q&A Session 4 - E-Tech Metals - Rare Earth Elements

Welcome to our fourth Q&A session with Founding Member, E-Tech Metals and Managing Director and Founder, Ed Loye.

E-Tech Metals is a junior mining company, incorporated in the UK and developing a neodymium (Nd) / praseodymium (Pr) deposit in Namibia. In this Q&A we'll discuss:

  • Background of E-Tech Metals

  • Importance of Nd/Pr

  • Rare Earth Element (REE) production today

  • What makes a viable REE deposit

  • How REE companies mitigate environmental impacts, including radioactive waste

1) CMA: Tell us about E-Tech Metals - how did you start and where are you now?

Ed: E-Tech Metals is a junior mining company with a focus on neodymium (Nd) and praseaodymium (Pr). We were founded in the UK in 2015 to pursue opportunities in the critical metals space. The company was born out of the work assessing worldwide rare earth element (REE) projects from the SoS RARE consortium. We pinpointed the Eureka rare earth element deposit in Namibia because it adhered to many of the positive metrics for development. We have been delineating the size and extent deposit ever since, as well as de-risking the metallurgical requirements to concentrate the target ore mineral.

We are currently merging with Mila Resources PLC on the London Stock Exchange, planning to relist in September 2020. From this point we are undertaking a Preliminary Feasibility Study to move us closer to fast-tracking the project to production.

2) CMA: What are neodymium (Nd) and praseodymium (Pr) and why do they matter?

Ed: Nd and Pr are 2 important elements of the 17 rare earth elements (lanthanide group La-Lu, and Y and Sc). Nd and Pr play a vital role in high strength neodymium-iron-boron Nd(Pr)FeB magnets. These magnets are used widely in electric and hybrid vehicle (EV/HEV) engines – roughly 3kg of magnets, or 1kg of Nd per car. Without the engine in an EV you’re left with an expensive battery on wheels. Governments around the world are encouraging car manufacturers to switch to fleets of EVs and HEVs.

NdFeB magnets are also integral to large offshore wind turbine generators with 200kg of NdPr needed per MW of power. In the largest wind turbines this can go up to 2 tonnes of Nd. NdPr is at the heart of the drive for electrification of transport and sustainable energy generation.

3) CMA: Where is Rare Earth Element (REE) production today?

Ed: It is well known that China dominates supply of REE - 77% of world production in 2019.

  • Six main companies control REE production in China from the large Bayan Obo iron-ore and REE hard-rock mine in North China, to the ion-adsorption clay deposits of the south.

  • China is increasingly sourcing concentrate material from beyond its borders, e.g. from neighbouring Burma.

  • At the same time China is also clamping down on illegal production in country.

Outside of China production is mainly from:

  • Lynas’ Mount Weld deposit in Western Australia, and their processing plant in Malaysia – much of the production goes to manufacturers in Japan, but also to other refiners around the world, including some into China itself.

  • Small additional production of mineral concentrates from Mountain Pass Mine in California, USA, and from the Gakara deposit in Burundi – however these mineral concentrates ultimately end up in China for further processing.

  • Mineral sands are processed within India for REE content, and Russia processes a limited amount of REE ore in Estonia.

With the dominant role of China, resource security is a big issue for rare earth elements – and not just in raw material production, but throughout the mine-magnet value chain. There have been calls by governments around the world to diversify supply chains of ‘critical metals’, where REEs continually sit at the top of criticality lists, which have been developed as a response to certain governments leveraging against their strong resource/manufacturing base. However, diversification requires long lead-times to bring any new mine to production, as well as the expensive capital expenditure needed to build the mine and subsequent processing facilities.

4) CMA: How did your previous experience help you to develop this project?

Ed: Prior to founding E-Tech Metals I was the Project Manager of the SoS Rare project. The SoS RARE project was funded by the UK Government’s Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC) under the SoS Minerals umbrella and was headed from Camborne School of Mines, University of Exeter along with other UK and international academic and industrial partners. We studied the mobility and concentration of REEs in mineral deposits around the world, and investigated processes that could lower the environmental impact of REE extraction and recovery. Our research spanned from mineralogy to metallurgy, with a strong emphasis on lifecycle assessment (LCA) to quantitatively assess economic viability and mitigate environmental impact.

I found that, of all the deposit types assessed, from conventional deposits, to novel REE sources, the Eureka deposit in Namibia stood out as a potential low-cost, low-impact, low-thorium, easily winnable, near-term REE source. E-Tech Metals was incorporated to pursue this opportunity.

5) There are quite a few REE developers out there, what do you think makes a viable REE deposit?

Ed: During the first “REE boom” of the early 2010s (when China first strategized the sector, halted exports, and prices flew up) as many as 400 juniors entered the space. Many projects suffered from logistical remoteness, complex mineralogy, metallurgical brick-walls, or radioactivity issues – making many projects sub-economic – for now.

From what we’ve seen of the very few projects that have reached production, they have benefited from a large weathered deposit of high-grade conventional ore and sufficient funding to start production, or a high-grade ore that only requires cheap gravity based processing equipment – as examples.

Most burgeoning REE projects are looking at much larger resources, with a different economic model. Many cannot be profitable at being mere concentrate producers and need the value-add from intermediate product or from separated REEs. They look at taking the concentrate product 1-2 steps further to realise higher returns from an intermediate REE product or from separated individual REEs, such as Nd/Pr. But this costs lots of money and presents its own difficulties. Larger deposits can also suffer at the first hurdle – getting to the initial concentrate.

REE deposits declare their grade and tonnage in “% TREO”, or Total Rare Earth Oxide. This is the equivalent to copper % or gold grams/tonne. However, the TREO can sit in a range of REE ore minerals resulting in a polymineralic concentrate. This can cause processing difficulties later on.

In addition to this limitation, many of the target REE minerals have small grain sizes, under a 10th of a millimetre, and intimately bound with other minerals in the host rock that you wouldn’t want in a concentrate (e.g. iron-hydroxide mineral goethite, or barium sulphate mineral barite). This means the rocks need to milled down to a tiny size which requires high energy. At this point the milled “flour” is too small for cheap and easy gravity concentrating methods, and the finely ground-up run-of-mine needs to go through a series of “flotation cells” where a complex soup of reagents and bubbles help concentrate the target minerals into an ore-rich foam (froth) that is skimmed-off.

Our proposed near-term project in Namibia doesn’t require flotation to concentrate the target REE ore. Like mineral sand producers, we have realised high recovery from low-cost physical processing alone. The added advantage of the Eureka concentrate is that it is mono-mineralic in terms of the TREO, with a consistent low-level thorium content. We are initially aiming to be a profitable near-term concentrate producer, but with added investment we would like to explore the option to incorporate the intermediate “crack” of our conventional concentrate, for a value-added product that is usable by a wider range of customers around the world.

6) CMA: How do REE developers and producers mitigate environmental impacts, including radioactive waste?

Ed: It is well known that REE production, like all mining, has an environmental impact. There needs to be a clear management plan through mine development to closure and site remediation at the end of a mine’s life. Importantly, REE deposits are known to be associated with radioactive elements, notably the element thorium (Th), and to a lesser extent uranium (U) – but this varies between deposits.

A famous monazite mine in South Africa was originally mined primarily for its thorium rather than REEs, when thorium dioxide was used in the gas mantles in the streetlamps of yesteryear. The REEs won from monazite in heavy mineral sands are associated with much higher Th content and this has made many of these deposits off-limits for now.

Many REE deposits hosted in carbonatite host rocks tend to have much lower Th content, but this can vary from deposit to deposit. Nd to Th ratios in a REE ore mineral, between different deposit types, can generally vary from 1:1 to 40:1 – the latter being most favorable. The levels of radiation, even in small amounts, need to be handled appropriately and there is guidance provided by the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) when it comes to shipping mineral concentrates or handling radionuclides at mine or processing sites.

For the most part, the radioactivity of many REE ores is manageable, i.e. emitting similar dose rates as a household smoke detector. But miners and producers need to be transparent about their radioactivity levels. As with all mining it is necessary to commit to ESG and CSR.

7) CMA: Why did you decide to join the CMA?

Ed: We decided to join the CMA because of the need to fulfill the UK's industrial strategy and commitment to low-carbon economy. Electrification of transport and renewable energy require specialty metals, and these need to be mined. There needs to be clear communication with government, and to the greater public at large, that modern mining practices can be responsible and adhere to best practice. By entering this 'age of metals,' it will be easier to realise a circular economy through the development of metals recycling technology. However, there will always be a need for primary sourcing i.e. mining. The CMA should help us communicate these messages.

Thanks Ed! Learn more about E-Tech Metals here:

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Critical Minerals Association

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@ Critical Minerals Association 2020