Rare Earths are materials that are absolutely essential to our modern lifestyle. Without Rare Earths, our society could not have the technology that it possesses. Despite the term used to describe these materials, Rare Earths are not exactly rare. Their group is comprised of 17 chemical elements. Of the chemical elements, 15 are the lanthanides found on the periodic table and the other two are Scandium and Yttrium. These 17 elements fuel our technology from aircraft engines, to car engines; cameras to x-ray and MRI machines; cell phones to televisions and computers.
In this day and age, Rare Earths are helping to create Hybrid Cars, which can decrease the amount of greenhouse gas put into the Earth’s atmosphere in comparison to the ‘traditional’ car. Rare Earths are used to create the electric motors, batteries and brakes for hybrid cars. They (Rare Earths) are also used for increasing energy efficiency through Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs, and Fluid Cracking Catalysts (used to refine crude oil).
Lynas Corporation has developed a strategy to create a “reliable, fully integrated source of Rare Earths from mine through to market…” (Lynas Corp.) Currently, Lynas has operations in Western Australia (Concentration Plant), and Malaysia (Advanced Materials Plant).
The Malaysia location is said to be the largest Rare Earths processing plant in the world, with a capacity for 22,000 tonnes per annum (expansion to be complete in 2013). The material brought in to the Malaysia plant is delivered from the Australian one, and is 100% safe and non-toxic/non-hazardous. After the ore is brought in, it is processed in three steps.
Step one is the cracking and leaching of the Rare Earths concentrate, using concentrated sulfuric acid and ‘cracked’ in a rotary kiln at high temperatures. This converts the Rare Earths into Rare Earth Sulphates which are then ready for the process to remove any impurities (via the use of water). The, then, solution is ready to go on to feed the Solvent Extraction.
Step two, the Solvent Extraction, is done is two sub-steps. After being placed in Solvent Extraction Trains, the first step is called ‘Upstream Solvent Extraction,’ which separates the light Rare Earths, and the heavy Rare Earths. Afterwards, in the second step ‘Downstream Solvent Extraction,’ the Rare Earths are divided into groups and further into individual elements.
The final step in the process done at the Malaysia location is finishing the product. Through the use of science, Lynas produces Rare Earths that are ready to be used in the manufacturing of energy-efficient, and economically safe technology that drives society towards a “greener” Earth.