Privatization of rare earth mining: Today’s need for India

Privatization of rare earth mining: Today’s need for India

T. Srinivasagan
V.V. Mineral, Thisaiyanvilai, India

ABSTRACT: This paper highlights the importance of Rare Earths Mining in India. Monazite is the important ore and source of Rare Earth Elements (REE). The Monazite is abundant in India and found along the coast of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha. Monazite is found as placer deposit and deposited along with other associated heavy minerals viz. Ilmenite, Rutile, Garnet, Zircon, Leucoxene, Sillimanite etc. Although our country is blessed with more than 10.93 million tons of Monazite reserves, due to several constraints it is severely under utilized. The Monazite Mining/processing being a government monopoly, due to which REE being imported from China. Processing and Production of Monazite by private entities are not allowed in India due to co-occurence of prescribed substance Thorium. In view of the REE’s strategic application, heavy demand prevails for REE. Hybrid vehicles, Magnets, Rechargeable batteries, Catalytic Converters are few of the end uses of REE.

1. INTRODUCTION

Rare Earth Elements (REE) are a group of 17 Elements. These elements are moderately abundant in the earth’s crust, some even more abundant than copper, lead, gold and platinum. Some elements are more abundant than many other materials, because of their geochemical properties, REEs are typically dispersed; most of them are not concentrated enough to make them easily exploitable economically. It was the very scarcity of these minerals that led to the term as “rare earth”. There are 17 rare earth elements; 15 within the chemical group called lanthanides, plus yttrium and scandium. They are classified into two types i) Light Rare Earth Elements (LREE) (More Abundant) and ii) Heavy Rare Earth Elements (HREE) (Less Abundant).

          Fig. 1. Periodic table showing rare earth elements and rare metals.

1.1 Light rare earth elements
(a) Lanthanum (La)
(b) Cerium (Ce)
(c) Praseodymium (Pr)
(d) Neodymium (Nd)
(e) Promethium (Pm)
(f) Samarium (Sm).
1.2 Heavy rare earth elements
(a) Europium (Eu)
(b) Gadolinium (Gd)
(c) Terbium (Tb)
(d) Dysprosium (Dy)
(e) Holmium (Ho)
(f) Erbium (Er)
(g) Thulium (Tm)
(h) Ytterbium (Yb)
(i) Lutetium (Lu)

(j) Yttrium (Y)
(k) Scandium (Sc).

2. ABUNDANCE OF REE’S IN EARTH CRUST

Together the lanthanides, Yttrium and Scandium are commonly referred to as REE’s, although this is a misnomer since most of the REE’s are common mineral constituent as compared with other metal elements. The term “rare” is not due to availability, whereas due to the metallurgical process needed to isolate the individual metal species are complex and early technology prevented commodity-level production.

The abundance of REEs in the earth’s crust relative to other common metals is presented in Table 1.

TABLE I. Abundance of Elements in the Earth’s Crust

Elements Crustal Abundance (Parts per millions)
Nickel (28 Ni)

Zinc (30 Zn)

Copper (29 Cu)

Cerium (58 Ce)

Lanthanum(57La)

Cobalt (27Co)

Neodymium(60Nd)

Yttrium (39 Y)

Scandium (21Sc)

Lead (82Pb)

Praseodymium(59Pr)

Thorium (90Th)

Samarium (62 Sm)

Gadolinium (64 Gd)

Dysprosium (66 Dy)

Tin ( 50 Tn)

Erbium (68 Er)

Ytterbium (70 Yb)

Europium (63 Eu)

Holmium (67 Ho)

Terbium (65 Tb)

Lutetium (71 Lu)

Thulium (69 Tm)

Silver (47 Ag)

Gold (79 Au)

Promethium (61 Pm)

90

79

68

60

30

30

27.0

24.0

16.0

10

6.7

6

5.3

4.0

3.8

2.2

2.1

2.0

1.3

0.8

0.7

0.4

0.3

0.08

0.0031

10-18

* REE – Lanthanides, Scandium and Yttrium is presented in bold face type.

The major minerals of RE of commercial importance are presented in Table 2.

TABLE II.

Minerals Chemical Formula Countries of Origin Appx REO% Remarks
Bastnaesite (Ce, La)

FCO3

USA, China & Australia 75% Processing relatively simpler,  more content of Europium.

In China associated with Iron ore mining

Monazite (Ce, La, Th&U) PCO4 India, Australia, Malaysia, Brazil, Thailand & Korea 65% Available in beach placer deposit. RE content more or less uniform. Contains Th&U which are radioactive.
Xenotime YPO4 Malaysia, China & India 60% Yttrium major constituent. In Malaysia associated with Tin Mining
Gadolinite (Ce, La, Nd,Y) Fe Be2 Si2 O10 USA 60% Source of Yttrium. Recovered as by-product from Bastnaesite.
Ion Exchange Clay Weathered Apatite & Xenotime ore concentrated China Unique deposits found only in southern China. Though less content of RE easier to concentrate. Rich source of Y, Eu, Tb & Dy.
Apatite Ca5 (PO4)(F, Cl, OH) CIS, South Africa 19% Occurs in Copper, Tin, Phosphate Mining
Loparite (Ce, La, Na, Ca, Sr) (Ti, Nb)O3 CIS 30% Contents above 40% Titania

I.    History of REE

From the 1960s until the 1980s, the United States was the world leader in REO productions. In fact, in 1984, the Mountain Pass Mine in California supplied 100 percent of US Demand and 33 percent of the world’s demand for rare earth. In the late 1970’s, China started increasing Production of REEs, and as illustrated in Figure 3.1, rapidly because the world’s dominant producer. Active mining Operations at Mountain Pass Mine were suspended in 2002. As REE production in the US has declined, China has become the world’s leading producer of REE’s and is currently responsible for more than 95 percent Global Production.

I. Major End Uses And Applications of REE

Currently the dominant end uses of Rare Earth Elements in the United States are for Automobile Catalysts and Petroleum Refining Catalysts, Use in Phosphors in Color Television and Flat Panel Displays (Cell phones, Portable DVDs and Laptops), Permanent Magnets and Rechargeable Batteries for Hybrid and Electric Vehicles and Numerous Medical Devices (See Table III). There are important Defense applications such as Jet Fighter Engines, Missile Guidance Systems, Antimissile Defense and Satellite and Communication Systems. Permanent Magnets containing Neodymium, Gadolinium, Dysprosium and Terbium (Nd Fe B magnets) are used in Numerous Electrical and Electronic components and New Generation Generators for Wind Turbines. About 75% of the Nd Fe B Permanent Magnet Production is concentrated in China. Another 22% is produced in Japan.

TABLE III. Rare Earth Elements – End Uses

Sl. no. REE Symbol End Uses
1 Scandium Sc Light aluminium-scandium alloys for aerospace components, additive in metal-handle lamps and mercury-vapor lamps, [4]radioactive tracing agent in oil refineries.
2 Yttrium Y Yttrium Aluminium Garnet (YAG) laser, yttrium vanadate (YVO4) as host europium in TV red phosphor, YBCO high-temperature superconductors, yttria-stabilized Zirconia (YSZ), yttrium iron garnet (YIG) microwave filters, energy-efficient light bulbs, spark plugs, gas mantles, additive to steel.
3 Lanthanum La High refractive index and alkali-resistant glass, flint, hydrogen storage, battery-electrodes, camera lenses, fluid catalytic cracking catalyst for oil refineries.
4 Cerium Ce Chemical oxidizing agent, polishing powder, yellow colors in glass and ceramics, catalyst for self-cleaning ovens, fluid catalytic cracking catalyst for oil refineries, ferrocerium flints for lighters.
5 Praseodymium Pr Rare earth magnets, lasers, core material for carbon arc lighting, colorant in glasses and enamels, additive in didymiumglass used in welding goggles  ferrocerium Firesteel (flint) products.
6 Neodymium Nd Rare-earth magnets, lasers, violet colors in glass and ceramics, didymium glass, ceramic capacitors.
7 Promethium Pm Nuclear batteries, luminous paint.
8 Samarium Sm Rare-earth magnets, lasers, neutron capture, masers.
9 Europium Eu Red and Blue phosphors, lasers, mercury-vapor lamps, fluorescent lamps, NMR relaxation agent.
10 Gadolinium Gd Rare-earth magnets, high refractive index glass or granites, lasers, x-ray tubes, computer memories, neutron capture, MRI contrast agent, NMR relaxation agent, magnetostrictive alloys such as Terfenol-D.
11 Terbium Tb Green phosphors, lasers, fluorescent lamps, magnetostrictive alloys such as Terfenol-D
12 Dysprosium Dy Rare-earth magnets, lasers, magnetostrictive alloys such as Terfenol-D
13 Holmium Ho Lasers, wavelength calibration standards for optical spectrophotometers, magnets
14 Erbium Er Infrared lasers, vanadium steel, fiber-optic technology
15 Thulium Tm Portable X-ray machines, metal-halide lamps, lasers
16 Ytterbium Yb Infrared lasers, chemical reducing agent, decoy flares, stainless steel, stress gauges, nuclear medicine
17 Lutetium Lu Positron emission tomography – PET scan detectors, high-refractive-index glass, lutetium tantalate hosts for phosphors.

II. Demand for Rare Earth Elements

The world demand for REE was estimated at 1,36,100 tons in 2010, with global production around 1,33,600 tpa.

III.             Rare Earth – World Reserves, Production & Consumption – 2015

TABLE IV. Country-wise Reserves, Production & Demand

Country Reserves(tons) (with % of total) Production (tpa)(with % of total) Global RE Demand (2010)
China

 

Brazil

 

Australia

India

 

United States

Malaysia

 

Thailand

Others, including Russia

550,00,000 (43.6%)

220,00,000 (17%)

32,00,000 (2.5%)

31,00,000 (2.5%)

 

18,00,000

(1.4%)

30,000 (0.025%)

 

NA

410,00,000 (32.5%)

 

1,05,000 (86.6%)

 

 

10,000 (8.2%)

0

 

4,100 (3.4%)

 

200 (0.2%)

 

2,000 (1.6%)

NA

China

 

Japan

 

Europe

 

 

US

 

Rest of Asia

54%

 

24%

 

10%

 

 

8%

 

4%

Total 1261,30,000 1,21,300

Source – USGS 2016

From the above it is evident that the countries, Brazil and India are having surplus REE reserves they are not keen to produce any REE.

Following are the reasons for US to control their REE production

  1. Higher cost operations
  2. Environmental restrictions.

Following is the turn of events in the monazite sector during the last 107 years in India.

  1. Heavy mineral deposits of Manavalakuruchi in the state of Travancore (now Tamilnadu) were discovered by Schomberg, a German Scientist in 1909 which was proved richer and economical compared to rest of the world. Initially, the raw material itself was exported to other countries and later Mineral Separation Plants were set up and produced Ilmenite and Monazite were exported. After independence, the export of Monazite was restricted and hence a Processing Plant for Monazite was set up by M/s. Indian Rare Earths Ltd (IREL), PSU to produce Thorium Nitrate for Gas mantles and Rare Earths. Monazite contains 65% Rare Earths Oxides along with 9-10% thorium and 0.35% uranium.
  2. In 1965, all the closed down Mineral Separation Plants were acquired by IREL. Till 1998, the Beach Sand Mineral(BSM) mining operations other than Garnet and Sillimanite was with the Public Sector only.
  3. In 1998, Mining and Separation of all beach sand minerals other than Monazite were opened up to private sector in India by DAE.
  4. In 2002, Monazite processing was stopped by IREL due to Thorium storage bottlenecks and high production costs of REE by IREL.
  5. Mining policy, Environmental policy and Land Acquisition Bill of India are the bottlenecks for PSU regarding REE production.
  6. The present AMCR by Government of India aims at exploitation of the entire suite of beach sand minerals on the utility of thorium alone, which will have a negative impact on other beach sand minerals and also on titanium, zirconium and rare earth productions in India.
  7. Environmental restriction for handling and storing associated Thorium compounds.
  8. As per IAEA documents none of the countries in the world, other than India are planning for thorium based reactor.

 IV. REE Mines in operation

A.    Bastnaesite :

  1. China – Baiyan Obo & Sichman
  2. USA – Mt. Pass
  3. Vietnam – Dong Pao
  4. Australia – Dubbo Trachyte

B.    Monazite:

  1. China –  Guangdong
  2. Australia – Mount weld
  3. India –  IREL
  4. Malawi –  Kangankunde
  5. SA –   Zand kopsdrift, Steenkampskaal

C.    Xenotime:

  1. Brazil –  Ptinga
  2. Malaysia – Lahat Perak
  3. China –  Guangdong

D.    Apatite:

  1. China –  Nangang, Gangdong
  2. Australia – Nolaus Bore
  3. Canada – Hoidas Lake

E.    Eudialyte:

  1. Canada –  Zeus
  2. Greenland –  Steenstrupine

F.    Loparite:

  1. Russia –  Lovozersky

G.    Fergusonite:

  1. Canada –

V. Properties and Chemical Composition of the Mineral Monazite

Composition %
REEs as Re2 O3

P2O5

ThO2

CaO

S1O2

MgO

U3O8

Fe2 O3

Al2 O3

PbO

TiO2

ZrO2

59.37

27.03

8.88

1.24

1.0

0.63

0.35

0.32

0.12

0.18

0.36

0.49

  1. Honey Yellow to Golden yellow. Also pale yellow
  2. Specific Gravity – 4.6 – 5.47
  3. Crystal –  Monoclinic
  4. Hardness –  5 to 5.5 on Moh’s scale
  5. Bulk Density – 3200 kg/m3

 VI.   Conclusions

Based on the study, it is inferred that now is the suitable time for India to go for Private Sector Participation in Monazite Production and Processing considering the Rare Earths Market in the World, which is dominated by China.

A.    Radiological Safety in Processing of Monazite:

The radiological safety aspect to be covered in the processing of Monazite is very simple, when it is compared with operation of Nuclear Reactors. Due to the lesser composition (in PPM level) of radioactive elements in Monazite, the radiological safety standards can be easily achieved by the Private entities and the same can be regulated by the existing radiological safety regulatory authority viz. AERB. Appointment of Exclusive Radiological Safety Officer (RSO) deputed from DAE/AERB would make the system safer.

Already Private entities who are all involved in the processing of BSM facility are holding a valid license under Atomic Energy Radiation Protection Rule, 2004.

B.    Stacking and Handling of Thorium rich concentrate:

The present scale of Mining of Beach Sand Minerals (BSM) by private entity is about 10 lakh tpa. During the Process about 50 tons Thorium concentrate is expected. The system is very simple and with a few laid down procedures, stacking and handling Thorium concentrate can be easily achieved with the aid of the regulatory authority AERB.

C.    Change in policy

Heavy mineral deposits of Manavalakuruchi in the state of Travancore (now Tamilnadu) were discovered by Schomberg, a German Scientist in 1909 which was proved richer and economical compared to rest of the world. Interestingly, Mineral sands then mined from rich seasonal Beach washings for only one mineral, i.e. Monazite, which produce incandescence by infusing the paraffin mantle in a solution of thorium and cerium compounds, lost its worth due to arrival of filament lamp. During 1947, Indian first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru exercised control (not banned, but restrictions) over the export of Monazite and Thorium Nitrate. However, in 1995 DAE issued a gazette notification, listing prescribed substances, including Monazite, that are subject to export licensing by the DAE.

Here it is important to mention that in 1947, India exercised control over export of Monazite “not merely a financial matter, it has international implication”.

The mineral Monazite is utilized for only commercial purpose only and not for any strategic purpose. Also, as per IAEA documents, about the national nuclear programs of different countries, does not give any indication that any country, is planning significant use of thorium either in the reactors currently under operation as also in the near future.

Thus, it is the right time for DAE to allow Private entities to Produce and Process Monazite mineral for meeting the increased demand for Rare Earths in the world with stipulations regarding safety and misuse of Thorium and Uranium.

The additional REE available by opening up will pave way for the development of downstream industries in India using REEs as the raw material which will have additional financial as well as strategic implications.

References

  • US Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, January 2016.
  • Latest Scenario in Rare Earth and Atomic Minerals in India, Dr. R. N. Patra, CMD, Indian Rare Earths Ltd.
  • Rare Earth Elements: A Review of Production, Processing, Recycling and Associated Environmental Issues, 2012, Engineering Technical Support Centre, Cincinnati, OH.
  • Rare Earth Elements: The Global Supply chain, 2013, Marc Humphries.
  • India’s Rare Earths Industry – A case of Missed Opportunities, S.Chandrasekar& Lalitha Sundaresan.
  • The Process of Mining REEs and other Strategic Elements.
  • Extractive Metallurgy of Rare Earths, Nagaiyar Krishnamurthy and Chiranjib Kumar Gupta

Privatization of REE – By Mr.Srinivasan

 

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