MOSCOW, December 6 – Novosti, Vladislav Strekopytov. In terms of reserves of rare earth metals (REM), Russia ranks second, but production is only two percent of the world. Development is hindered by the lack of domestic demand, while up to 90 percent of the REM required by domestic enterprises are imported from abroad. The relevant departments have been trying to unravel this tangle of contradictions for years. Looks like things have finally moved forward.
Rare earth metals are 15 elements from the lanthanide group plus yttrium and scandium. They have similar chemical properties and usually occur together in nature. The name “rare earth” appeared at the end of the 18th century, because these elements, firstly (as it was then believed), are relatively rare and, secondly, form refractory, water-insoluble oxides, formerly called “earths”.
In 1794, the Finnish chemist Johan Gadolin, examining ore samples found near the Swedish town of Ytterby, discovered a previously unknown “rare earth”, which he called yttrium. Then the German scientist Martin Klaproth divided these samples into yttrium and cerium. Since then, light (cerium) and heavy (yttrium) groups of rare earth elements have been distinguished.
Now they are widely used in radio electronics, instrument making, nuclear engineering, mechanical engineering, chemical industry, metallurgy, and the defense sector. Strategically important REM resources are factors of global competition and internal security.
Rare earth elements in the periodic table
From gas lanterns to rockets
At the end of the 19th century, cesium and thorium were used in the manufacture of gas-fired grids for gas and kerosene lanterns. In the 1960s, the “era of europium” began. In the 1970s-1980s, samarium, which is necessary for samarium-cobalt magnets, became the most scarce. Today they have been replaced by neodymium ones.
The most popular now are neodymium and dysprosium, as well as scandium. Due to the increase in the production of electric vehicles, the demand for REM will increase. So, for one car of the Toyota Prius model, about four kilograms of rare-earth metals are needed: two and a half – lanthanum and one and a half – neodymium. Neodymium magnets are needed in powertrains and transmissions, and they must work at high temperatures, and this also requires dysprosium alloying additives.
Another important field of REM application is catalysts for oil extraction, oil refining, chemical industry and polymer production, as well as purification of vehicle exhaust gases and industrial emissions. Environmental regulations are being tightened around the world.
In metallurgy, alloying additives of rare earths significantly increase the performance properties of alloys. This is important, including for military equipment. So, in the American F-35 fighter-bomber, there are 417 kilograms of REM. And lutetium, one of the rarest and most expensive, is used in impulse rocket engines.
The largest player in the global REM market is China: 62 percent of production and more than 42 percent of reserves. Up to a third of the world’s volume is mined at the Bayan-Obo field in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China. There, the ores are of the carbonatite type; they were formed as a result of the solidification of a specific magma, predominantly carbonate. The same type is found in other major deposits in China, the USA, Australia and Russia (Tomtor in Yakutia, which has not yet been fully explored and is not being developed).
China fully satisfies its own needs in this strategic raw material and controls the global market. Up to 72 percent of the world consumption of rare earths falls on China.
The US buys a part in China. Other large consumers of REM – Japan, Great Britain, EU countries – completely import from China and Australia.
The main reserves of Russia are concentrated in hard-to-reach and poorly explored deposits. Only Lovozerskoye on the Kola Peninsula is being developed, where complex loparite ores are mined, containing, in addition to REM, tantalum, niobium and titanium. As associated components, rare earths are also extracted from apatite-nepheline ores from a number of deposits in the Murmansk region.
The enriched ore is sent to the only Solikamsk magnesium plant in the country, where an intermediate product is obtained – the collective carbonate concentrate of REM. To extract metals, so necessary for industry, it is necessary to separate it into oxides. There are no enterprises capable of doing this on an industrial scale in Russia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, they went to Kazakhstan and Estonia. The collective concentrate was sent for processing exactly there, now this scheme does not work.
As a result, Russia, having one of the world’s largest mineral resource bases for REM, turned out to be one hundred percent dependent on the import of this strategic raw material. Deposits are not developed, and separation enterprises are not built, because there is no demand.
REM production and consumption map
Break the vicious circle
In July 2019, the Government and the State Corporation Rosatom signed an Agreement of Intent to develop the high-tech field “Technologies of New Materials and Substances” in the Russian Federation. At the VI National Mining Forum GORPROMEXPO-2022, recently held in Moscow, a separate session was devoted to rare earth metals. Andrey Shevchenko, Director for Technological Development of Rosatom State Corporation, presented a roadmap with targets for key projects there.
“Rare and rare earth metals are included in the list of the main types of strategic mineral raw materials, which was approved by government decree dated August 30, 2022,” he said. “The current situation in the industry does not cause us euphoria, but we do not consider it hopeless and are working on it “Currently, there are problems with industrial-scale separation facilities that allow the production of individual REM oxides. The second thing that holds us back is low domestic consumption. We will increase domestic consumption and enter the external market, where there is very tough competition from other countries manufacturers, primarily from China.
The representative of Rosatom noted that by 2025, import dependence should be reduced to 50 percent, and the production of rare-earth metals should reach 2.7 thousand tons. By 2030, according to the roadmap, Russia will be able to fully provide for itself, producing 7.5 thousand tons of REM per year.
The Association of Producers and Consumers of Rare and Rare Earth Metals, established in July 2020, should become a kind of headquarters for the industry, coordinating the interaction of all market participants.
“So far, the gap between how much needs to be produced to make it profitable and internal demand is too big,” explains Ruslan Dimukhamedov, chairman of the association, business development director of Atomredmetzoloto JSC (Rosatom’s mining division). “There are deposits. There are also end uses, but there are no intermediate processing stages. Now we need to build a chain: from oxides to metals, from metals to master alloys, from master alloys to products.”
A complex for the production of rare earth metals will be opened near Murmansk
Wealth on the surface
The first step, according to the authors of the roadmap, is a project to involve phosphogypsum, a by-product of the production of phosphate fertilizers, in the processing. REM of the cerium group in it is 0.4-0.5 percent, and strontium, which is no less in demand in high-tech industries and the nuclear industry, is up to one and a half.
“White mountains” of phosphogypsum are now lying all over the country. The Skygrad company, which launched the first industrial production in Russia for the separation of rare earth metals in Korolev near Moscow, once developed a technology for processing this technogenic raw material, according to which, along with a cheap gypsum binder, REM concentrate was obtained along the way.
The company continues to operate. By 2023, Skygrad plans to reach 500 tons of separated oxides per year, in 2024 – up to a thousand tons, by 2025 – up to two thousand. A project of the same scale, but a year behind, is being implemented by Atomredmetzoloto.
This is enough to cover the internal needs. Then it will be necessary to develop new deposits, build large processing enterprises that provide the developing high-tech industry with their own rare earth metals, and enter the foreign market.
According to experts, the Tomtorskoye deposit alone, after exploration is completed and production is brought to full capacity, will satisfy up to ten percent of the world’s demand for rare-earth metals. And this despite the fact that the ores of Tomtor contain the most scarce, heavy group of rare earths. But everything depends on the problems of logistics and the search for investors, complicated by economic sanctions.
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