New project aims to extract rare earth elements from uranium tailings

New project aims to extract rare earth elements from uranium tailings

ALEX MACPHERSON, SASKATOON STARPHOENIX
Published on: June 5, 2017 | Last Updated: June 5, 2017 6:00 AM CST

 SRC rare earths from uranium tailings

Saskatchewan Research Council mineral division head Bryan Schreiner says a new pilot project to remove rare earth elements from uranium tailings could have significant benefits for the province. KAYLE NEIS / SASKATOON

New technology under development in Saskatoon could make it profitable for Saskatchewan-based mining companies to extract “significant” quantities of rare earth elements from uranium tailings solution that would otherwise go to waste.

The parallel processes being piloted by Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC), which started work on the project three years ago, involve concentrating the tailings solution and then using “cells” containing mixers to separate out each of the rare earth elements.

“It’s good for our uranium companies and it’s good for the province,” said Bryan Shreiner, who heads SRC’s minerals division. “And in terms of value for Canada and the rest of the world, rare earths are in demand.”

Rare earth elements are used to improve alloys and manufacture consumer electronics and other products. While the 17 elements are relatively abundant, they are difficult to produce because they almost never appear in significant concentrations.

SRC’s technology, the product of about three years’ work, could not only ease China’s stranglehold on the global market for rare earths, but make extracting the elements much cheaper than setting up a dedicated facility, Schreiner said.

“The value of the elements is quite high. And the other value proposition here is you’ve already crushed and ground and dissolved the material (to get uranium) so you don’t have to do that for the rare earths.”

Schreiner said funding for the project comes from the Crown corporation’s innovation fund. According to its latest annual report, SRC turned revenues of just under $70 million into $484 million in “direct economic benefits” for the province.

It remains unclear, however, if companies invested in the uranium sector will adopt the technology.

Saskatchewan’s uranium industry has been badly hurt by plummeting prices, the result of collapsing demand in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. It remains unclear if any will choose to invest limited capital in the new technology.

Cameco Corp. spokesman Gord Struthers said in an email that while the project is “very preliminary,” the Saskatoon-based uranium mining company has discussed the possibilities with SRC and is considering whether it can “take it further.”

“It’s an interesting idea that could add additional value to our milling operations,” Struthers wrote.

Schreiner said while challenges remain — SRC is comfortable with the separation process but needs to refine its technique for concentrating the tailings solution — there is little doubt Saskatchewan firms would find a market for rare earth elements.

However, “It has to be tried and tested because the companies aren’t really interested in something unless it’s pretty secure and pretty reliable.”

 

 

 

About prosperitysaskatchewan

Consultant on Saskatchewan's natural resources.

Posted on June 5, 2017, in economic impact, miscellaneous, other minerals, uranium and nuclear. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: