With the mandate to research and develop technology related to the bauxite industry, the Jamaica Bauxite Institute yesterday unveiled the rare-earth elements research pilot plant at its St Andrew office.
A joint venture with Japan-based aluminium supplier Nippon Light Metals, the aim of the project is to develop methodology for neutralising red mud with the objective of extracting some of the rare-earth elements and assess any possible environmental impact. Red mud has a typical chemical composition of oxides of iron, aluminium, titanium, silica, sodium and calcium.
"The extraction of rare earth from red mud has never been done before on a commercial basis. This is a first. Everything here [at the plant] is prototype, and as such, the sensitivity of the project is very important for us. This is a new industry for Jamaica and for the area," stated Parris Lyew-Ayee, executive director of Jamaica Bauxite Institute.
"We have always identified rare earth in our bauxite, but the trick was always how do you make money from it? How do you extract it? This is what this project is all about. That is why this pilot project is so important for us to see the possibilities that we have in really maximising the benefits from this resource that we have."
Following a tour of the facility, Phillip Paulwell, minister of science, technology, energy and mining, said he was quite impressed.
"Last year, I visited Nippon's unit in Japan, and we saw them working on our rare earth from our red mud and we were very pleased with what we saw. But what I am seeing here is about 10 times the scope of what they were doing in Japan, and I am very, very impressed. This is a substantial investment, with state-of-the-art equipment. I now understand why $500 million has been spent so far, and I believe that this is going to represent a tremendous project for Jamaica," said Paulwell.
The US$5-million plant was funded primarily by Nippon, holder of patented advanced proprietary technology required for the extraction of rare-earth elements from bauxite residue.
It is hoped that by March next year, the project will advance to the next phase.