Rare Earth Elements in National Defense
engineers have been adamant about minimizing their environmental footprint during the separation phase of the process.
Molycorp designed a proprietary oxide separation process that would use fewer reagents and recycle the waste water, thus doing without a disposal pond. Molycorp broke ground for their new separation facility at the Mountain Pass mine in 2011. This complex process separates out the individual elements which follows the mining of the raw material. Molycorp engineers suggest that they will use one-half the amount of ore to get the same amount of usable end product.32 The chloralkali facility which would allow recycling of wastewater is now mechanically complete and is being commissioned.
Molycorp recently acquired the Japanese subsidiary Santoku America in Tolleson, AZ, and renamed it Molycorp Metals and Alloys (MMA). This acquisition is part of the firm’s strategy to become a vertically integrated company. It produces both NdFeB and SmCo alloys used in the production of permanent magnets. Molycorp Metals and Alloys is the sole U.S. producer of the NdFeB alloy. Their intention is to modernize the facility and expand metals and metal alloy production.33 Molycorp also recently purchased a 90.023% majority interest in AS Silmet, (renamed Molycorp Silmet) an Estonian-based rare earth element and rare metals processor, which will double its capacity for rare earth oxide and metal production (separation) in the near- term, according to Molycorp officials.
The management at MMA is also examining ways to improve metal recycling. Much of their recycling research is focused on the magnets and the highly valued HREEs. They want to probe into the commercial feasibility of recycling materials contained in permanent magnets used in consumer goods. Sourcing sufficient quantities of end-use materials and understanding the metallurgical processes for extracting the heavy rare earth elements such as the dysprosium and terbium is an important part of the research. Testing the quality of the recyclable material and evaluating the economics will determine the project’s success. Molycorp is also evaluating near- term opportunities to recycle energy efficient light bulbs for the phosphors. 34
Molycorp has entered into a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) with U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory to study new methods to create commercial-grade permanent magnets used in commercial applications. Development of downstream activities such as refining, rare earth metals alloying, and permanent magnet manufacturing will require a large amount of financing, a skilled workforce, and a sizeable U.S. market, all of which could be more completely developed in the long term. Keeping and recruiting top talent (in engineering, science, and finance) that can help Molycorp achieve its plans for vertical integration is one of the company’s top priorities, according to company officials. Their aim is to consistently invest in the right people and the right training to accomplish its goal.
Recent supply chain developments by Molycorp include the acquisition of Neo Materials Technology, Inc.—a Toronto-based firm (renamed Molycorp Canada) with rare earth processing and permanent magnet powder facilities in China. According to Molycorp, 18% of Neo Materials production volume goes to domestic Chinese companies and 33% is directly exported to Japan plus an additional 11% goes to Japanese companies operating within China. One concern voiced
Briefing at Mountain Pass mine site by various Molycorp Engineers, August 8, 2011. Briefing at Molycorp Metals and Alloys by Managing Director Randall Ice, on August 9, 2011. Ibid.
Congressional Research Service