China is the largest producer of dysprosium, but a pilot plant under construction in Australia could be a new source of the metal.
The vast majority of the rare earth dysprosium is mined in China, but Australia is an up-and-coming contender. One company is planning to mine the commodity in the country by mid-2018.
Northern Minerals (ASX:NTU) is steadily moving forward at its Browns Range heavy rare earths pilot plant project, and this week it awarded MACA (ASX:MLD) a $6-million mining contract. Under the agreement, MACA will extract 180,000 tonnes of ore and associated waste from the project’s Wolverine and Gambit pits. The extracted ore will be stockpiled for treatment.
MACA will also build access roads, a tailings storage facility and other associated infrastructure at Browns Range. According to Northern Minerals, the company is expected to sign an agreement for bulk earthworks that will bring the total value of the agreement to $10 million.
The $56-million plant was approved by Northern Minerals’ board last month, and will be used to assess the feasibility of a full-scale project. It will operate for three years and will be capable of processing 60,000 tonnes per year — that’s about 10 percent of the capacity of the full-scale plant the company has proposed.
Construction of the plant has already begun, and will take 11 months to complete. Northern Minerals has already arranged to sell 100 percent of the plant’s output to Guangdong Rare Earths Group, a 51-percent-owned subsidiary of Lianyugang Zeyu New Materials Sales.
Under an agreement made last month, Lianyugang Zeyu New Materials Sales will make a prepayment of $10 million to Northern Minerals for 15 percent of the plant’s expected output. The private Chinese company will pay for the other 85 percent of output based on volumes delivered.
In total, the plant is expected to produce 148,200 kilograms of dysprosium in 1,719,000 kilograms of total rare earth oxide in a mixed rare earth carbonate over the course of three years. As mentioned, production is expected to begin in mid-2018.
Why mine dysprosium?
Dysprosium is used to manufacture neodymium-based magnets, which can be used in motors, generators and wind turbines. The metal is of particular interest because of its use in electric vehicle motors, and demand for it and other rare earths is expected to grow as more clean energy technologies are adopted.
The current price for dysprosium metal is $350 per kilogram, while dysprosium oxide is going for $230 per kilogram.
China is responsible for 89 percent of the world’s rare earths production, and its high-tech industries consume 67 percent of global output. Currently Australia is the second-largest producer of rare earths, but it accounts for only 9 percent of output. Both countries also hold significant reserves of rare earths.
Many rare earths consumers are concerned about China’s dominance in the market, which in the past has led to supply shortages and high prices. It is difficult for rare earths-focused companies outside the Asian nation to gain a toehold in the space, but market watchers are eager to see such companies succeed.
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Securities Disclosure: I, Melissa Shaw, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.