The UK’s Critical Minerals Strategy was launched in July at the ground breaking ceremony for the $195m Pensana’s rare earth refinery at Saltend Chemicals Park near Hull. This will be the UK’s first new rare earth refinery in decades. The MMTA caught up with CEO Tim George to ask about Pensana’s plans for Saltend.
MMTA Pensana’s is targeting production of 12,500t/yr of separated rare earth oxides (including 4,500t of Nd-Pr oxides) by 2024, adding some 5%of global magnet material production. With your rare earth mine in Angola coming on at the same time, isn’t this a very short and ambitious target?
TG We started three years ago looking at building a concentrator plant in Angola, beneficiating ore from the Longonjo mine and upgrading it to a mixed rare earth concentrate. Of course, Asia takes more than 90% of mixed rare earth feed, and with China dominating supply for magnetic metals, rare earths are a part of critical minerals strategy, and we saw a need for building robust supply chains for high quality material outside Asia. We looked at different locations and settled on the UK and Saltend because it offered the option to plug and play into existing chemical park infrastructure.
The plant at Saltend is not that difficult to build. The long-lead items are for mixed concentrate separation and solvent extraction, tanks pumps, there are no long-lead items for construction, and a lot of the existing processing equipment can be repurposed. At Longonjo we are 4km from the railead to the port, and the logistics there are very straightforward.
The processing technology is proven. We involved (UK engineering consultancy) Wood group with the design and piloting of the technology in Perth, where there is history with Lynas and the access to technology expertise associated with rare earths is as good as it gets globally. Our COO Rocky Smith (formerly managing director Molycorp’s Mountain Pass rare earth project in California) is a chemical engineer familiar with every single unit process that will be used across our operations in Angola and at Saltend.
MMTA Construction is starting on the Longonjo mine.in Angola. What products does it ore lend itself to, and how will you handle the radioactive waste (e.g. thorium) that has been the environmental bane of other rare earth projects?
TG The ore is hosted in weathered carbonatite, the primary source is monazite with bastnaesite as a secondary source. The rare earth elements include lanthanum, cerium, neodymium and praseodymium and are mainly light REE, with well over 90% of the value being in neodymium, dysprosium and praseodymium. The products we are targeting will be primarily NdPr oxide along with lanthanum and cerium carbonate and cerium-rich by-product, and then stockpile other low volume mixed heavies, then look at their separation into low volume, high quality products.
The technology that we will be using at Longonjo is well tested, and radioactive elements will be separated out at the site, and all the necessary permits and precautions are in place. What we will be shipping from Angola to Saltend will be a NORM-free product, so handling it is not expected to be an issue.
MMTA Half of Saltend’s production has been committed to a customer in Asia. Pensana has also received support from the UK government’s £1bn automotive fund. Do you expect to mostly supply the Asian market, or do you see processing capacity for magnetic materials developing in Europe? How significant is the UK’s Critical Minerals Strategy?
TG Having a customer is important for de-risking our financings. The money from the UK automotive fund is also helping towards this. The Critical Minerals Strategy is preparation for the future. As production starts, so will opportunities for Saltend to supply magnetic materials to OEMs in Europe. And you also have to look at the critical materials supply chain from the perspective of provenance and the carbon footprint. Globally, much of the mineral supply to China comes from Africa or South America. But rather than selling a concentrate to China, we will process as much as we can in Angola, benefitting the local economy and creating jobs.
The plant at Saltend will use renewable energy, and our anticipated green bond issue has been accredited by Cicero. We are also looking at it from the perspective of recycling and circular economy. This is where Equinor comes into play, as we could use the hydrogen produced at its Hydrogen to Humber (H2H) project at Saltend and collect and recycle end-of-life magnets in offshore wind turbines and associated industries to create a circular economy for permanent magnets in the UK. We believe a real opportunity exists to dovetail and start this immediately after starting production, it is technologically possible to do. Seeing is believing.