Extraction at the Nechalacho rare earths project is expected to start within weeks.
Mining equipment was rolled out the newly-opened Nechalacho rare earths mine ice road on Saturday.
The extraction of rare earth elements at the Nechalacho (Thor Lake) site, approximately 100 kilometres southeast of Yellowknife, is expected to start by early April, said David Connelly, vice-president of strategy and corporate affairs with Cheetah Resources, the company overseeing the project.
Connelly, as well as Ray Anguelov, Canadian operations manager with Cheetah, and Ernest Betsina, Ndilo chief of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation (YKDFN), inaugurated the opening of the ice road that runs from Dettah to Nechalacho.
“I think the entire team is excited to be seeing the first ever rare earth project in Canada launching, and particularly in less than two years since we started our efforts,” Connelly said.
Heavy equipment, lighter environmental footprint
The mining equipment that was transported down the 110-km road included haul trucks, a crane, fuel, a small amount of ammonium nitrate explosives, bulldozers and a sensor-based sorter for the rare earths.
“The sorter is the most exciting thing,” Connelly said. “The technology used here is really different from traditional mining technology. Normally, you have a very large concentrator (that is) the size of a football field that crushes and separates the rock and concentrates the ore. In this case, it's the size of a sea can. It crushes the rock and then the sensor-based sorter detects the heavy red mineral. It's a very substantial reduction in energy, water, chemicals and tailings.”
As a smaller, quarry-like mining operation, the Nechalacho project will occupy less than five per cent of the area of a typical diamond mine, Connelly said.
The work at the site will be done by Cheetah and Nahanni Det’on Cho, which was brought on as the mining contractor for the project in January 2020.
Cheetah and Nahanni also signed an $8-million contract for the extraction project in February.
Extraction and beneficiation
The mining process at Nechalacho has two stages: extraction and beneficiation.
The extraction will involve drilling holes into which explosives will be inserted. After detonation, the ore will be removed.
In beneficiation, the sensor separates the ore from the quartz and a rare earths concentrate of about 40 per cent purity remains.
Rare earths are a group of 17 elements that are often found together, Connelly explained.
“What's unique about Nechalacho is it's disproportionately high in the rare earths that are critical for electrical vehicles and wind turbines and computer hard drives. They also allow the miniaturization of computers and they go into the magnets for MRI machines.”
The sorted ore will then be transported to Saskatchewan for processing at a new multimillion-dollar plant in Saskatoon.
Cheetah inked an agreement for the plant's construction with the Saskatchewan Research Council in September 2020. It expects the plant will begin operation in the fourth quarter of 2021, a revised estimate from the previous anticipated start date of the third quarter.
Seeking acceptance from Indigenous partners
Even though the ore deposits at Nechalacho are estimated to be expansive and lucrative, the first phase of the project is regarded as a demonstration, for two reasons.
Cheetah aims to seek the acceptance of the project from the YKDFN, Lutsel K'e Dene First Nation, Denı́nu Kų́ę́ First Nation, the Tlicho Government and the North Slave Metis Alliance, all of whom have interest in the area, Connelly said.
“(We want to) demonstrate to them we can respect the land and the water and engage them in procurement and have good performance in Indigenous employment,” he said.
The second reason is that rare earths, as specialized materials, are traded differently than larger-scale mineral commodities.
“It makes sense to start off small, work with the customers to fine tune the rare earths from NWT so they meet the precise product specifications of our international customers and then scale up with supply to them,” Connelly explained.
One of Cheetah's customers is Norweigan firm REEtec, who in December 2020 signed on for five years of supply of rare earths.
Building relationships with Indigenous community
About 25 workers are now at the site, with the workforce increasing in the first phase to around 30 people, more than 70 per cent of whom will be Indigenous.
“It's great that they'll employ some of our members,” said Betsina. “(Rare earths) are needed for technology and for the green economy, so hopefully we can build that up. This is the first time YKDFN and Det'on Cho will be the miners on this project. That's pretty encouraging. We've been part of this right from the beginning ... in all phases of this project. We're hoping for more of this type of working relationship with the mining industry.”
It's expected the first phase will last until 2024, when the project will scale up and the workforce could triple.
“There is a world-class multi-generational deposit of rare earth elements at Nechalacho. Second phase could go on for generations in human terms,” Connelly said.
Cheetah is accessing an initiative with the GNWT to develop and carry out training programs for staff aimed at positions above entry level.