Canada has begun supplying the world with minerals essential to a greener economy with the country’s first rare earth mine producing concentrated ore.
“Canada and its allies are gaining independence from China’s rare earths supply chain,” said David Connelly of Cheetah Resources, owner of the Nechalacho mine southwest of Yellowknife.
Rare earths are a series of elements with exotic names such as ytterbium, lanthanum and gadolinium. They are crucial for computers, LED screens, wind turbines, electric cars and many other products essential to a low carbon world.
Some industry analysts predict the rare earth market will grow from $6.8 billion in 2021 to over $12 billion by 2026.
Nearly 60% of the world’s supply of these vital materials is produced in China, and much of the rest is owned by Chinese companies. Until now.
“(Nechalacho) is the only rare earth mine in North America that doesn’t supply China,” Connelly said.
“A Big X-Ray Machine”
The deposit, which contains 15 different rare earth elements, was discovered in 1983. A mine development proposal was submitted to regulators more than a decade ago.
This project involved intensive water use and would have generated large tailings ponds. The Northwest Territories environmental regulator approved the plan, but noted that it would have created significant impacts requiring mitigation.
The new mine does not use water. Instead, the raw ore is crushed into gravel-sized pieces and passed a sensor.
“It’s a big x-ray machine on a conveyor belt and it separates the white quartz from the much heavier, denser rare-earth ore,” Connelly said.
This concentrate is then transported by barge on Great Slave Lake to Hay River, Northwest Territories. From there, rail links take it to Saskatoon, where Vital Metals, the company that owns Cheetah, has built a facility to refine the concentrate for market. It is also where the provincial government is developing a center for research and refining of rare earths. The first deliveries are underway and expected in June.
The refined product from Nechalacho is transported to a customer in Norway, where the individual minerals will be separated from each other and turned into metal bars.
By 2025, Nechalacho hopes to produce 25,000 tons of concentrate per year. There’s enough ore there for decades to come, Connelly said.
“It’s several generations.”
At full production, Connelly said the mine will employ about 150 people in the Northwest Territories and another 40 in Saskatoon. These aren’t huge numbers in the mining sector, but Connelly said they will make a big difference to the northern economy because most workers will be based there.
Mining workers living in the North
More than 40 of the mine’s current 50 employees live in the North, Connelly said. About 70 percent are Aboriginal, and Cheetah has contracted with the Yellowknives Dene First Nation to conduct the actual mining at the site.
Eventually, Connelly said, Cheetah hopes to find a fair share for native groups in the area.
But Nechalacho isn’t just important to the Northwest Territories, Connelly said.
A national source of vital minerals for electric motors would help preserve the country’s auto sector, he said. This would make it easier for Canada to meet its climate goals and increase national security by providing a secure source of crucial materials, he added.
Canada has 13 active rare earth projects, according to the federal government. Most are in Saskatchewan and Quebec, where the only other mine close to production is located – the Kipawa project, owned by the same Australian company that owns Cheetah.
“Canada has some of the largest known reserves and resources (measured and indicated) of rare earths in the world,” says a document from Natural Resources Canada.