Saskatchewan Research Council eyes future as West and China part ways


Crown Research Corps. gives a first look inside its Saskatoon rare earths plant, which will compete head-to-head in a market cornered by China for decades.

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This two-ton bag of black sand is not radioactive.

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Mike Crabtree, CEO of the Saskatchewan Research Council, provided this helpful information after we had already stood directly in front of the large bag of slightly shimmering powder for a good few minutes.

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The powder is meant to mimic monazite, an ore mined for its high concentrations of a group of elements known as the rare earths. Monazite also contains radioactive elements thorium and uranium, hence the need to use a model in an exhibit explaining the various processes at the SRC facility in Saskatoon’s North Industrial Zone.

Although Canada has its own monazite, Crabtree said the SRC is currently sourcing from Brazil for use in the Saskatoon plant, which aims to demonstrate the viability of processing rare earths in Saskatchewan.

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He said the exploitation of rare earths was not a priority in Canada, despite having the fifth largest reserves in the world, because China has dominated the market for metals, which are essential to almost all high-tech products, including smart phones, wind turbines and electrical appliances. Vehicles.

Previous efforts to start a domestic rare earths industry in the 2010s saw the Chinese flood the market, driving down the price of the ore and bankrupting companies trying to start viable mines, Crabtree said.

The Chinese have been working since the late 1970s and early 1980s to corner the rare earth market, he said. China now controls up to 90%, from ore production to high-powered magnets used in things like vehicle transmissions.

“They were 40 years ahead, so now the West is just realizing the implications of that,” Crabtree added.

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These implications have only recently become clearer. The United States announced in October a series of export controls aimed at cut china from computer chip supply; this decision is widely seen as a sign of a sharp economic rift between the two powers.

In recent weeks, the US Department of Defense has resumed deliveries of new F-35 fighter jets; these had been suspended since September after the discovery of a batch of 126 planes containing engine parts containing a samarium-cobalt alloy from China.

“This plant will produce 40 tons of military-grade samarium oxide per year,” Crabtree noted the SRC installation, showing vials containing separated rare earth elements. Crabtree said the value of these processed items ranges from tens of thousands of dollars to $2 million per tonne, and access to them involves technology made in Saskatchewan.

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When the SRC began work on its facility in 2019, only the Chinese could manufacture the interconnected tanks used to separate the rare earths. Crabtree said the SRC had been offered a price of $6 million for one of the units, which would also require up to 60 people to operate. It went to three other jurisdictions, and the top quote of those came in at $25 million, but the manufacturer was unwilling to provide any guarantee that the unit would work.

Crabtree said the SRC has designed and built its own separation machine and will manufacture 150 for about $6 million. These units will use artificial intelligence, allowing a crew of two or three to operate them, he said.

Innovations like this will help Saskatchewan narrow the price gap with China, but it’s unlikely to be enough to offset China’s poor labor and environmental standards, he noted. Rather, the SRC hopes to compete primarily by offering investors and customers a product that is free from environmental, social and governance baggage.

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While he stressed that the SRC staff are “actors” who stay out of the political arena, he said it is clear that the geopolitical tension with China will continue to give impetus to his projects.

“Our job is to position Saskatchewan socially and economically for these kinds of challenges ahead.

In the meantime, Crabtree said finding workers is his biggest concern to maintain the momentum of what he predicts will be a multi-billion dollar industry in the province in 10 to 15 years.

“We do super complex technical and commercial and engagement stuff on rare earths. We need people capable of administration, project management, engineers, social scientists, of all disciplines to be able to move this economy forward.

  1. David Connelly, Vice President of Strategy and Corporate Affairs at Vital Metals, speaks at the Rare Earth Summit in Saskatoon on Tuesday, September 20, 2022.

    Summit Promoting New Rare Earths Industry Held in Saskatoon

  2. The installation crew stand atop the Dense Media Separator (DMS), the first major installation of equipment at Vital Metal's Saskatchewan mining facility in Saskatoon.  When complete, the facility will process ore from the Nechalacho rare earth mine in the Northwest Territories into a mixed rare earth carbonate destined for a Norwegian refinery for final separation into individual rare earth elements and eventually into electric vehicle motors.  PHOTO: Courtesy of Vital Metals/Ray Anguelov

    Rare earth company brings $20 million facility to Saskatoon

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