RER Establishes Green Rare Earth Fluoride Plant
- Category: tungsten‘s News
- Published on Saturday, 16 October 2021 22:00
Rare Earth Refiners (RER), rare earth (RE) mineral refinery located in Pretoria, South Africa, has designed, built and commissioned a demonstration plant for the green production of rare earth fluoride with an R15 million grant from the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA).
Renewable energy sources, particularly neodymium trifluoride (NdF3), are widely used to produce permanent magnets in electric vehicles (EVs) and wind turbine motors.
Rare earths are widely used in electric vehicles: for example, yttrium, which has an important role in component sensors; neodymium in headlight glass, speaker magnets, windows, seats and ventilation systems; LCD screens (europium, yttrium and cerium); and high-performance batteries (cerium and lanthanum).
A team from Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (Necsa), with financial support from the Department of Science and Innovation's (DSI) Fluorochemical Expansion Initiative (FEI), began developing rare earth beneficiation technology in 2012.
Dr. Mahlori Mashimbye, head of chemical and related industries at DSI, said the main drivers of the FEI are DSI, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Competition and the state-owned Pelchem and Industrial Development Corporation (IDC).
Brian Mphahlele, TIA's commercialization executive, said that in the long run, the plant is designed to leverage South Africa's renewable energy deposits (particularly fluorspar), coupled with the country's rich rare earth fluoride heritage to increase local beneficiation.
South Africa has multiple sources of renewable energy, including monazite mines, phosphate mines, fluorspar, monazite in heavy mineral sands and deposits in phosphogypsum piles – a by-product of phosphate fertilizer production.
"The successful demonstration of this technology is in line with our goal to ensure sustainability and economic growth through the beneficiation of raw materials in South Africa and to industrialize our core technology," said Dr. Jan Rijn Zeevaart, Acting Research and Technology Development Division Executive at Necsa.
The first process tested using this plant was the production of NdF3 from neodymium carbonate, achieving >99% conversion. RER plans to further enhance the plant in the coming months to gather more information about its processes and maintenance.
Rare Earth Refiners CEO Dr. Jacobus Swanepoel told Mining Weekly that the process is "green" because traditional methods of producing NdF3 use a wet acid route that generates large amounts of acidic waste, often degrading the areas where it is used.
As an alternative, he explained, the RER plant uses a dry fluorination technology developed and patented by Necsa, with the only by-products being small amounts of water vapor and carbon dioxide.
Another driver of the technology is the beneficiation of other local renewable energy sources, which are mainly generated as part of the waste stream of certain companies. Therefore, Rare Earth Refiners' plant will be able to assist miners in beneficiating renewable energy as another by-product.
Dr. Ryno Pretorius, co-owner of RER, said he has spent the last nine years industrializing the technology, a "dream come true" progression from an idea to a successfully operating plant.
In addition to operating the plant, he was the lead engineer for the design, construction and commissioning of the plant. Pretorius holds a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Pretoria, studying fundamental aspects of the RER/Necsa process.
Meanwhile, Swanepoel noted that while more than 85 percent of the world's renewable energy market is owned and controlled by China, South Africa has the potential to supply more than 10 percent of global renewable energy demand.
In this regard, he said that with the Rare Earth Refiners plant and the Necsa technology, South Africa now has the technical expertise and raw materials to build a complete value chain, from mining to the end product – the electric drivetrain industry.
In addition, the use of renewable energy in permanent magnets for electric vehicles is part of IDC's "Mine to Magnet" program. IDC also supported RER's funding application to TIA.
Joanne Bate, IDC's Chief Operating Officer, explained that the development of a vertically integrated renewable energy value chain is an integral part of IDC's strategy to strengthen South Africa's industrial and technology base.
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