Momentum continues to build for Canada’s only rare earths minerals development– the Nechalacho project southeast of Yellowknife – which announced this week that a plant to process rare earth concentrates from the NWT is being built in Saskatoon.
Cheetah Resources, the Canadian subsidiary of Vital Metals, is overseeing the mining venture at Thor Lake. Cheetah announced on Sept. 22 that it has signed a binding term sheet “to negotiate definitive agreements” to build a $5.25-million rare earth extraction plant in Saskatchewan. Cheetah aims to have the plant functioning by the third quarter of 2021.
That plant is to be constructed near a Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC) rare earth processing facility being built to produce separated rare earths oxides. On Aug. 27, the Government of Saskatchewan announced $31 million to go toward Canada’s “first rare earth separating facility,” which will be operated by the SRC in Saskatoon.
Construction is slated for this fall and it should be running by late 2022, according to the Government of Saskatchewan.
That facility will serve as a refinery that will take rare earth product and separate it into high purity individual rare earths oxides for specific market uses.
Earlier in September, the company released the first of its employment figures showing that 14 workers have been hired to date with the majority of them being either Northern or Indigenous. The majority are Indigenous. There are expected to be about 30 employees between the work site and the mining company’s office in Yellowknife by this time next year.
With extraction of the rare earth ore to begin next spring, this is to be followed by a sensor-based sorting on site in summer 2021. However, these are only the first two steps in a process to develop rare earths elements for specific uses, vice-president, strategy and corporate affairs David Connelly explained this week.
“The supply chain for rare earth (development) has many steps in it,” Connelly said. “The first two are going to be in the NWT and that is the extraction of the ore from the ground and then concentration of the ore with the sensor-based sorting.”
The concentrated ore is then expected to be transported, potentially by barge to Hay River and by ice road. From there, product is expected to be shipped by truck or rail to Saskatoon.
The Cheetah-plant would carry out the third stage of the value chain, which is to process that concentrated ore into a mixed rare earth carbonate product.
As the fourth stage, the SRC’s plant is expected to convert rare earth carbonate to commercial grade separated rare earth oxides for market, according to Tuesday’s news release.
The SRC’s capability and accessibility of land and ease of permitting process were the reasons why Cheetah arranged to have the facility in that province, Connelly said.
Connelly explained that there are only six other rare earths elements refineries in the world outside of Russia and China. The one in Saskatchewan, once built, will be the only one in North America.
Last January, the Government of Canada announced its involvement in a Canada–U.S. Joint Action Plan on Critical Minerals Collaboration to increase its global market share of important minerals and rare earth elements, as China currently dominates well over 80 per cent of that market. Rare earth elements are used in various types of nationally strategic goods, including electric cars and batteries, cellphones and military equipment.
“Being the only rare earth project in Canada with near-term production capability, co-located with Canada’s only separation facility, provides Cheetah the opportunity to be a cornerstone of the North America Critical Minerals Strategy,” Cheetah Resources’ managing director Geoff Atkins stated.