When Defense Metals (TSXV: DEFN) this month updated the resource estimate for its Wicheeda rare earth element (REE) deposit in British Columbia – demonstrating growth of 17% – it positioned Wicheeda as one of North America’s most advanced REE projects, establishing, as CEO Craig Taylor said, the tonnage and grades necessary to proceed forward into prefeasibility.
This is a positive development for a nascent North American rare earths market and taps into the broader issue of the glaring lack of domestic production. China has a near monopoly on the group of 17 metals that are crucial to the development of smart electronic devices and wind turbines, and which are notoriously difficult to extract and expensive to process.
There is only one active mine for magnetic REEs in the United States, Mountain Pass in California, which is part owned by Chinese interests and exports its materials to China to be refined. Meanwhile, in recent years, China has come to control 91% of refining activity, 87% of oxide separation and 94% of magnet production, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The Vancouver-based miner aims to produce an average of 25,000 tonnes of rare earth oxides (REO) per year, approximately 10% of the world’s current production.
The Defense Department issued a first-time contract to American or Canadian companies by year-end to recover gallium, used in semiconductors and military radar systems, after China announced restrictions on the mineral that were seen as part of the country’s trade war on technology.
In August, China rattled the market when it exported zero gallium and germanium due to export controls on the two critical chipmaking metals. In light of China’s export curbs on gallium and germanium, many have questioned if rare earths could be next on China’s list of restricted exports, reports Adamas Intelligence.
Last week, China approved export licences for chip materials gallium, germanium – taking applications from some companies that meet relevant requirements. It was the latest salvo of an escalating war between Beijing and Washington over access to materials used in making high-tech microchips.
Defense Metals president, Dr. Luisa Moreno, is also a physics engineer, industry-known expert analyst and strategic metals consultant to federal and provincial governments.
Moreno pointed out there have also been export restrictions against China out of the West, and said the US is freezing American companies from selling certain types of advanced micro chips and critical technologies.
“The relevance of that for Defence Metals, because we know that China is able to come out very strongly and say, ‘we’re going to have broadly export restrictions in these two metals’, is that is a great chance now have more than ever that they could do the same for foreigners as well,” Moreno told MINING.com.
“And that puts assets like Wicheeda at a high importance level from governments around the world,” Moreno added.
Defense Metals’ Wicheeda REE project is known to contain 6.4 million measured tonnes averaging 2.86% total rare earth oxide (TREO) and 27.8 million indicated tonnes at 1.84% TREO. There is also an inferred resource of 11.1 million tonnes grading 2.02% TREO.
The company has now completed the pilot plant study for an Ontario location and has all the data required to move forward with the prefeasibility study.
Moreno said what sets the project apart most from others attempting to advance in the volatile market that saw Vital Metals, (ASX: VML; US-OTC: VTMXF), the only rare earths producer in Canada, declare bankruptcy for its Canadian subsidiary after a review of its half-finished C$55-million processing facility in Saskatoon – is the economics of Wicheeda’s rare earths concentrate is less capital intensive to process.
She said the company can produce a high-grade flotation concentrate because of favorable mineralogy.
“The concentrate we are able to produce is 43% – that’s excellent. That’s what makes this project so strong,” Moreno said. “The fact that we can produce high grade concentrate just takes us to a different level.”
Moreno said Defense Metals is the next moving into permitting, and, in community consultations has signed agreements with local First Nations.
“We finished the pilot plant, engaged different end users and are in the process of sending samples for qualification,” she said. “We just have to continue moving the project forward.
“Hopefully, it will make a significant difference for the whole world, not just for Canada and the US, but also for Europe, Korea and Japan.”