On When Russia Will Increase Production of Critical Metals

© de:User:Tomihahndorf

The Prosecutor-General's Office has filed a lawsuit in the Arbitration Court of the Perm Region to return the shares of OAO Solikamsk Magnesium Plant to the ownership of the Russian Federation. What is involved here is a company that processes loparite concentrate and produces rare-earth element compounds from it. This is not just the industry leader but the only producer of REM oxides in our country.

According to the plaintiff, the privatization of SMP took place in the 1990s, while the property was disposed of from the state “in violation of the law then in force and is now in the illegal possession of others.” Properm.ru and many other sources report this.

The most interesting question that arises after reading this information is not whether the transfer of the plant into private hands was indeed illegal. And the question is not even about how efficiently the owners have run the plant for the last 25 years. The question is why our country pays so little attention to the development of the rare-earth industry. After all, it is obvious that the demand for REMs - and this is a group of 17 metals - will unquestionably grow in the future.

Without them, it would be impossible to make electric cars and wind turbines, catalysts for oil cracking, air conditioners, and exhaust gas neutralization filters for automobiles. They are used in the production of television sets, computers, X-ray machines, and other equipment. No less than 40% of technologies critical for the development of the state cannot be created without rare or rare-earth metals.

A surge of interest in them occurred about 10 years ago when the governments of most developed post-industrial countries realized that they are totally dependent on China, which virtually monopolized the global core market and began to manipulate prices by artificially limiting exports. As a consequence, the number of REM projects and government programs all over the world became enormous. The number of scientific publications on this topic, including those related to the extraction of rare earth metals from secondary resources, increased sharply.

© Форпост Северо-Запад

“Such projects allow us to solve two most important tasks at once. Firstly, to saturate the market with the product in demand, in this case - rare-earth metals. And secondly, to involve industrial waste in processing, thus reducing the anthropogenic load on nature. For example, red mud of alumina production that is formed during aluminum production or phosphogypsum,” said Ruslan Kashurin, postgraduate student of the Physical Chemistry Department at St. Petersburg Mining University.

The young scientist is writing his dissertation on the behaviour of yttrium and lanthanides in the processing of technogenic raw materials. He assures that under certain conditions, the extraction of the useful component from it can be quite profitable. After all, the sludge contains from 0.2 to 0.6% of the mass fraction of rare-earth metal oxides. The main thing is to find an approach that will make the economic attractiveness of such projects more obvious.

“Any investment decisions should be weighted and take into account all possible risks. In this case, the business naturally wants to be sure that the raw materials and reagents needed to extract rare-earth metals are available and relatively cheap. And the technology itself makes it possible to create optimal parameters in the reactor, guaranteeing the highest possible reaction rate and, consequently, maximum efficiency. The carbonate solutions we use to meet these expectations are available in ten different regions, so there should be no problems with logistics, as well as with the price. In addition, during the experiments we were able to collect an extensive database of the degree of REM extraction depending on the concentration of reagents and suggest the best option, as well as determine the most suitable conditions for the process,” Ruslan Kashurin said.

The young scientist said that Mining University’s laboratories conducted experiments on model solutions, i.e. synthesized compounds, and on real samples of phosphogypsum. They allowed “to create the possibility in principle of REM extraction during complex processing of phosphogypsum into phosphomel and sulfate of alkali metal or ammonium,” which proves the prospects of the technology. However, this is not enough to introduce it into production, the scientist is sure. Ideally, the scientific and educational community should collaborate and create a joint database that would contain the results of all scientific research. They are needed to improve the efficiency of each subsequent project, since the components of waste lying in tailings all over the world vary in their composition. This means it is not feasible to treat them using a single methodology.

красный шлам
© Красный шлам / Пресс-служба "МИСиС"

But mankind has no time to move back. The volumes of sludge in the dumps have a clear tendency to increase, which is not surprising because the consumption of minerals on the planet is growing. Conscientious subsoil users have to spend more and more money on environmental measures, in particular, on waste disposal. And unscrupulous ones simply ignore the requirements of the “green agenda,” sometimes destroying entire ecosystems.

This is happening in many different regions of the planet. For instance, in 2010, the dam protecting the outskirts of the Hungarian town of Ajka against thousands of tons of red mud in the tailing dump of the local factory broke and 700 thousand cubic meters of polluted water poured out on the houses. This led to an environmental disaster. The buildings literally drowned in the brown sludge.

But the most terrible disaster happened more recently, two and a half years ago in Brazil. The tailings dam of an iron ore mine near the town of Brumadinho collapsed. The massive mudflow that swept over the workers’ camp left 259 people unable to get out and killed them. The bodies of eleven have not been found and are unaccounted for.

© Twitter/William De Lucca‏

There are several thousand such reservoirs in the world, many of which are physically and morally obsolete. Their utilization is one of the most important tasks facing miners and governments of states where natural resources are extracted. Moreover, the efficiency of its solution depends on the ability of businesses and scientists to implement cost-effective technology related to the extraction of useful components from waste. “The point of no return, if this does not happen, is much more visible than in the case of the effects of climate change.”