December 20, 2010

Hope that rare earths could boost mining sector

The global demand for rare mineral elements required for new technologies like hybrid vehicles, wind turbines and electronic devices like Apple's iPhone and flat-screen television sets could boost Namibia's mineral sector. This little-known class of 17 related elements is called rare-earth elements (REEs), which are found in Namibia. They are used in rechargeable batteries, magnets, computer screens, lasers and catalysts.

Canadian investors have formed the company Namibia Rare Earths Inc and obtained an exploration licence for rare earths, as these elements were found on the farm Lofdal near Khorixas. "These occurrences are unique in that they collectively represent a complete suite of 14 of the rare-earth elements together with significant concentrations of yttrium. Most importantly, the significance and distribution of the more valuable heavy rare-earth elements (HREEs) in the complex were only recognised in the past two to three years after initial sampling by the Geological Survey of Namibia," the company said on its website.

According to Dr Gabi Schneider, Director of Namibia's Geological Survey, the presence of rare earths in Namibia in general has been known for many years. "The occurrence of these elements has been well recorded over the years. The interest in them has now increased due to their use for new technologies," Schneider told The Namibian.

Okorusu Fluorspar, which has mined fluorite northwest of Otjiwarongo for decades, has in the past few months embarked on an exploration programme for REEs, as they are known to occur within the company's mining area. "A typical hybrid vehicle which runs partly on conventional fuel and partly on rechargeable batteries may contain around 20 kilograms of rare-earth elements in its batteries, the permanent magnet motor and its regenerative braking system," says Mark Dawe, managing director of Okorusu Fluorspar and vice president of Namibia's Chamber of Mines. "Hybrid cars are said to be the cars of the future and the demand for rare earths is expected to grow."

Low prices for rare-earth metals from China have undermined production elsewhere in the world and led to the closure of several mines overseas. Lax environmental rules and cheap labour also allow China to sell rare-earth metals at low prices. Worldwide demand for rare earths is expected to exceed supply by 30 000 to 50 000 tons by 2012 unless major new production sources are developed, say officials at Australian rare-earth mining company Arafura Resources.

Other REE mining projects in Canada, Australia and Malawi are currently undergoing intensive exploration or even feasibility studies and might collectively add up to 50 000 tons a year from 2013 onwards.

"Many other deposits are explored in Tanzania, Greenland, and Russia. After a limited shortage of REE in 2011 and 2012, the world demand could be met by those deposits. There are risks which might delay the development of new mines because the mineralogy of REE deposits is usually highly complex and the metallurgy - to produce pure oxides of single REE - is a very difficult process. A delay in a few of those projects will most likely have a significant short-term impact on the REE market," says geologist Rainer Ellmies of Germany's Agency for Geo-Sciences and Natural Resources BGR.

The light rare-earth elements (LREEs) like lanthanum and cerium are relatively common in the earth's crust. Despite their name they are even more common than copper or tin. They occur in many geological complexes worldwide; in Namibia for example at Eureka near Spitzkoppe and along a line from Okorusu to Okenyenya. But so far, no LREE deposit has been found in Namibia in which the elements are concentrated enough to mine them profitably.

The heavy rare-earth elements (HREE) like dysprosium and terbium are relatively rare elements. Terbium is responsible for the green colour in LED lights and TVs and dysprosium is necessary for the strongest permanent magnets used in hybrid cars.
"The problem with HREEs is that the industry needs only a few thousand or even hundred tons of each element annually. Two to three producers can meet the world demand. If more mines start HREE production the prices can easily collapse," Ellmies said.
The Lofdal deposit near Khorixas contains these HREEs. Now, Namibia Rare Earth Inc is spending immense capital to explore the deposit. If exploration is successful, Namibia might soon become a producer of REE ores," Ellmies said. (The Namibian)

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