NioCorp aims for 92% rare earth recoveries at demo plant in Quebec

NioCorp’s processing plant in Quebec. (Image courtesy of NioCorp.)

Rare earth miner NioCorp Developments (TSX: NB) (US-OTC: NIOBF) said it had succeeded in producing a high-purity mixed concentrate of the sought-after elements from its demonstration plant in Canada.

The company said the results at the L3 Process Development in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, support the technical feasibility of separating high-purity oxides of several key magnetic rare earths from ore extracted at the Elk Creek project, in southeastern Nebraska.

NioCorp aims to produce at Elk Creek metals including niobium, scandium and titanium, which are in high demand due to their wide-ranging uses in products such as mobile phones and electric vehicles.

“These results are right in line with our expectations and are a reflection of the excellent technical pedigree of the L3 team along with a tremendous amount of hard work to get the demonstration plant built, commissioned and operating,” Scott Honan, NioCorp’s chief operating officer said in the statement.

NioCorp’s patent-pending rare earths extraction and purification process used solutions generated by the upstream operations of the demonstration plant. 

The rare earths were then precipitated out of solution, producing a solid that contains 6% praseodymium (Pr) oxide, 25% cent neodymium (Nd) oxide, 0.35% terbium oxide (Tb) and 1.6% dysprosium (Dy) oxide, with the balance of the solids consisting primarily of rare earths with minor base metal impurities.

“We are very pleased to be able to deliver these outstanding results to Niocorp using the demonstration plant equipment,” said Eric Larochelle, co-owner of L3. “We have established a baseline of performance in the demonstration plant solvent extraction system, and expect to maintain or exceed these results as we gain further operating experience with that system.”

Based on these results and subject to additional demonstration testing over the coming weeks, L3’s process engineering team has determined that overall recoveries for these four magnetic rare earths are likely to be greater than 92% and meet commercial purity specifications for magnetic rare earth oxides, the company said.

Defying China’s dominance

Despite limited US efforts to find alternative sources of rare earths, the US remains heavily dependent on China and Chinese-owned companies for these critical materials.

NioCorp is one of several rare earth industry players that lobbied US lawmakers to pass legislation incentivizing the domestic manufacturing of permanent rare earth magnets.

The US government is hoping to find new deposits of minerals and metals by digitizing information from 100-year-old geological maps and by flying survey planes all over the country. 

The Biden administration is also financing programs to recover valuable minerals and metals from waste piles of old mines. 

The importance of having a domestic supply of critical metals became evident in 2010, after China blocked exports of rare earths to Japan during a dispute over a fishing trawler incident, sending prices soaring. Since then, tensions between Washington and Beijing have escalated, prompting fears about politically and economically motivated supply-chain disruptions.