Western company attempts to break China’s control over rare earths

Posted on 8 Aug 2012

Canadian clean technology company Orbite Aluminae has announced extraction of the first North American rare earths from its aluminous clay deposit in Quebec, becoming the first rare earths and metals producer in the region for years.

The successful extraction means that the company will now prepare for commercialisation in 2013, by which point it plans to offer heavy rare earth separation services to third parties and to produce its own resources by 2014.

According to Orbite Aluminae’s president and CEO Richard Boudreault, the company’s entry into the global rare earths market “should help to greatly reduce the economic risks associated with the concentration of separation techniques in China.”

The US, EU and Japan joined forces to launch a World Trade Organisation case against China for unfair trade practices in March 2012.

They hope to break China’s control over the rare earths industry, controlling 95% of the market. Rare earths are elements crucial to many commercial applications, and are notably used in the high-tech and green car industries. With worldwide demand for exploding in recent years, many fear a shortage.

The US, Australia and many other countries have been important rare earths producers in the past, but mines shut down over environmental concerns and the emergence of low-cost Chinese supply.

Orbite has evaluated the content of its Grande-Vallée (Quebec) aluminous clay deposit at more than 22% in heavy rare earths and has noted a strong presence of scandium, making the deposit the site of one of world’s most valuable rare earth deposits.

Rare earths (dysprosium, erbium, neodymium, praseodymium) and rare metals (gallium, scandium, yttrium) are products of high commercial value considered scarce but are rarely available in high enough concentrations to be profitable.

The United States and Australia hold considerable reserves but have been unable to maximize their potential due to the competitiveness of Chinese pricing.

“Our rare earths deposit holds significant commercial potential, and we expect to be the first in North America to offer a heavy rare earth extraction and separation technique as a derivative of our alumina productionm” affirmed Richard Boudreault, CEO at Orbite Aluminae.

However, the company has yet to complete a feasibility study and there is no certainty the proposed operations will be economically viable.

Orbite Aluminae has recently entered into a partnership with the world’s largest aluminum producer, UC Rusal, which is owned by Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska.