Editorial | Jamaica lost plot on rare earth extraction
In what they cast as a “groundbreaking” development, DADA Holdings, the ultimate parent of Jamaica’s Noranda Bauxite, last week announced a joint venture with a Canadian green technology outfit, Enervoxa, to extract rare earth elements (REEs) from the bauxite residue at an alumina refinery in Gramercy, Louisiana. That facility is owned by another DADA subsidiary, New Day Aluminium. The partnership will operate under the name ElementUS.
“ElementUS plans to build a one-million-ton-per-year, state-of the-art and environmentally friendly reclamation, separation and beneficiation facility on New Day’s property in Gramercy and begin marketing the offtake of the various components in material,” a statement from DADA said.
The company said that it has approximately 35 million dry tonnes of readily accessible “mineral-rich bauxite residue” at the Gramercy site, which will require no further mining or transportation. The implication is that ElementUS has a competitive advantage over other US extractors of rare earth metals.
Several factors in this development are of significance to Jamaica. The first is the economic and strategic importance of the 17 rare earth metals. They are increasingly critical in the manufacturing of components for high-tech, digital equipment, especially in green technology. China used to have a near monopoly on, and is still the major producer of, these metals. However, about 10 of them can be found in bauxite and in the effluent from alumina refineries, which ought to provide a space for countries like Jamaica, if the cost of extracting the metals is commercially competitive.
Several years ago, when Beijing flexed its muscles over the export of these minerals, the markets reacted with a shiver and spiralled upwards. Firms started to look for other suppliers. Alternatively, extraction technologies got a fillip. Enthusiasm waned as markets stabilised. The deepening geopolitical and economic rivalry between the United States and China, however, is reviving strategic concerns in the West about where these important metals will come from in the future. Diversification is again on the agenda.
For Jamaica, the immediately significant factor in the DADA announcement is the possibilities that it suggests. Indeed, it is a reminder that the island was, and ought to have remained, substantially ahead of ElementUS in extracting rare earth elements from the residue from alumina refineries.
Eight years ago, the Government’s Jamaica Bauxite Institute (JBI) and Japan’s Nippon Light Metals entered a 50:50 partnership for the extraction of rare earth minerals from bauxite residue. Millions of tonnes of the stuff are around the island in red mud lakes or dried and stacked in the vicinity of the island’s alumina refineries. Nippon spent US$50 million on an experimental laboratory and production facility at the JBI compound at Hope Pastures to develop and refine techniques to do precisely what ElementUS is about to start. New extraction processes/technologies were patented.
Apparently, however, the softening price for REEs meant that it was not economical to scale up the Nippon-JBI operation beyond the experimental plant. That, at least, is the assumption. Further, it is not this newspaper’s sense that much has happened with the project over the past five years. Or, it seems, with the JBI.
While technologies for mining REEs from bauxite are not entirely novel, Nippon apparently broke new ground with some of its applications for doing so commercially from residues. Perhaps the DADA announced initiative, whose processes were not disclosed, will be an impetus to revisit the Nippon-JBI agreement.
Indeed, the mining minister, Robert Montague, should report on the status of the partnership, including if work has been taking place over the last half-decade, and the possibility of it being revived. JAMPRO, in the investment promotion, had at one stage boasted of companies lining up to pour millions of dollars in the nascent sector. It, too, should say if it is possible to resuscitate these deals.
But as these developments emphasise, there is usually a significant lead time between having new ideas, developing new technologies, and bringing products to market. Countries and firms have to be prepared. They have investment in R&D, and it is best if there is synergy between research institutions and private enterprise. That does not happen sufficiently in Jamaica.
The Nippon-JBI agreement is one thing. But iron, titanium and other metals and minerals are found in bauxite and its effluent. In an article in this newspaper in 2013, Carlton Davis, a renowned expert on the global bauxite industry and a former Cabinet secretary, urged The University of the West Indies to conduct research on their efficient extraction. We have no evidence that the university either noted or heard. It is still not too late to start.