Russia owns rare earths but mines little. That’s changing

Olimpiada mine, Russia. Image from Polyus.

With rare earths in the cross hairs of the U.S.-China trade war, there’s a sharp focus on who else can sell the critical minerals.

Russia could become one supplier. The country accounts for less than 2% of global production, but owns the world’s fourth-biggest reserves, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. There are two projects that could come online by 2023, but they’ve been set back by delays.

President Vladimir Putin has pushed Russia to develop its own rare earth production, calling it an issue that’s ” critically important to the defense capability of the country.” He’s previously said Russia ranks second in total reserves around the world.

Russia accounts for less than 2% of global production, but owns the world’s fourth-biggest reserves, according to the U.S. Geological Survey

“Despite the fact that the projects are difficult and being postponed, the supplies are unlikely to reach the U.S.,” said Boris Krasnojenov, chief of research at Alfa Bank JSC in Moscow.

The biggest one is run by TriArk Mining Co., a venture owned by Russian billionaire Alexander Nesis and Russian state-owned giant Rostec State Corp., which is under U.S. sanctions. It’s developing a project in Russia’s Far East that hopes to produce 14,000 tons of ferroniobium and 16,000 tons of rare earth metals oxides a year, said spokesman Andjey Krasutsky. That would account for 10% of global production, according to the company.

TriArk expects to mine the first material from the Tomtor deposit in 2022 and have product ready to sell by the following year. However, the site has faced several delays because of difficulties extracting the ore.

“Given the timing of the project and the dynamic situation in the market and in the world, it’s too early to tell if Tomtor will be able to sell rare earth to the U.S.,” Krasutsky said.

Andrey Korobov, the head of Rostec’s RT-Business Development, said in an interview in 2015 that the plant will make Russia self-sufficient in rare-earth elements used in wind turbines and hybrid cars. Exports to Japan and China might be an option, he said.

The second, smaller rare-earth project is being developed by ZAO Technoinvest Alliance, which is partially owned by steel pipe maker ChelPipe PJSC. The goal is to extract tantalum and niobium as well as oxides of rare earth metals from the Zashikhinskoye deposit in the Irkutsk region and use some of the materials in pipe making. The project aims to process 1 million tons of ore per year. In January, the regional government said plant opening was delayed to 2023, according to Tass.

(By Yuliya Fedorinova)