Scandium and Rare Earth Elements

Supply chain vulnerabilities necessitate change

After passing high school chemistry class, very few people are ever exposed again to esoteric elements like scandium and niobium. This is even more true of the 15 lanthanide elements considered to make up what are referred to as “Rare Earths.” However, these elements are increasingly in the news cycle today as they are essential to many of the advanced technologies that will shape the economy in the coming decades.

Over the past year, scandium made headlines in Québec, as Rio Tinto began operations at its scandium oxide demonstration plant in Sorel-Tracy, a move that will support its upcoming production of aluminum-scandium alloys. "For the first time, customers will benefit from a North American supply of scandium oxide for applications in solid oxide fuel cells, lasers, lighting products or as an additive to produce high-performance alloys," Stéphane Leblanc, Rio Tinto's managing director of its iron and titanium segments, said in a statement.

Imperial Mining Group, whose flagship Crater Lake scandium-rare-earth opportunity also lies in Québec, is feeling the effects of this momentum swing as they set out to establish their 43-101 resource report followed by a PEA in fall of 2021. Their president & CEO, Peter J Cashin, stressed: “Throughout the rare-earth run from 2008 to 2012, not a single major player indicated support for developing the rare earth space globally. When you get a major like Rio Tinto saying they are going to produce scandium and then scandium-aluminum alloy because they think there is a significant market for it, from our perspective, it is a validation of our conviction that there is money to be made in this space.”

The benefits of scandium are plentiful and include the fact that when alloyed with aluminum it increases the strength and corrosion resistance of the metal, allowing it to be welded rather than riveted. As a result, aluminum-scandium alloys have the potential to lead to lighter aircraft, greater fuel efficiency and more cost-effective aircraft production. For the same reasons, scandium is also generating interest in the automotive industry.

Despite these benefits, the issue has long been about insufficient supply. If manufacturers cannot get the metal in sufficient quantities, they have no reason to incorporate it. Imperial is in an advantageous location being based in Québec because Scandium is an important alloy additive to aluminum, and Québec produces 90% of Canada's and 60% of North America's aluminum. Cashin asserted: “We are next door to what could be the biggest consumer market for scandium-aluminum alloy: the US. There are natural synergies for a sustainable source of scandium to Québec’s aluminum industry, and we have an asset that is considered one of the highest-grade scandium deposits in the world. It also has the additional benefit of significant rare earth credits.”

Rare Earths Return

In 2010, China halted exports of rare earths to Japan at the height of a row over the detention of a Chinese fishing captain. Japan subsequently capitulated over the issue, but it underscored how economically vital these elements are. At the time, there were calls to diminish the stranglehold China had over the rare earth elements (REE) market, but the Chinese proved competent in controlling prices, keeping them at low levels in order to apply pressure on any challengers. Over a decade later, China remains in control of the market, but there are renewed calls to support a non-Chinese REE supply chain.

Commerce Resources Corp. feels they have all the necessary components with their Ashram rare earth elements/fluorspar deposit to begin to shift the current state of affairs. The deposit, located in Nunavik, boasts grades of just below 2% on 249 million tonnes in the current defined resource. It is a largescale deposit with a very attractive grade that is monazite dominant. Commerce Resources Corp president, Christopher Grove, sees the monazite component being an important tailwind for the project, as the first rare earth element processor in North America is Energy Fuels, and they are only processing monazite material. The first rare earth element processor in Canada looks to be the Saskatchewan Research Council and they are also targeting solely monazite processing. “We have an exponential increase of rare earth element processors looking only to process monazite hosted material,” Grove stated.

When asked what he believes will ultimately drive success for Commerce Grove replied: “Ashram is the largest defined hardrock monazite deposit in North America, and the largest monazite dominant carbonatite on planet earth. That carbonatite is a very important word because it then speaks to size, and it also speaks to the ease of processing and lower processing costs.”

The next step toward executing on this vision is to complete the production samples requested by industry majors, and from there, Commerce will look to sign an agreement with one of those companies to enter into a project level investment on the basis of those samples, proving that it can produce a commercially marketable and viable rare earth element concentrate sample.

Image courtesy of Commerce Resources