Company plans new technology at rare earth minerals site (The Washington Times)

KETCHIKAN, Alaska (AP) – Ucore, the developer of the Bokan-Dotson Ridge rare earth elements mining project on Prince of Wales Island, has acquired the exclusive rights to new technology for environmentally successful mine development.
The Molecular Recognition Technology is used in rare earth elements separation as well as recycling and tailings processes, according to Jim McKenzie, president and chief executive officer of Ucore Rare Metals Inc. McKenzie visited Ketchikan recently, in particular to attend events honoring Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott.
Ucore expects to pay $2.9 million for a licensing fee for the technology, also known as SuperLig, the Ketchikan Daily News (http://bit.ly/1Dt67mv) reported.
The pilot plant will be built in Houston, Texas.
“This is really significant,” McKenzie said in an interview with the Daily News. “This can change the complexion of the company. … Up to this point, (Ucore) has been mainly a mining company.”
Ucore’s agreement with IBC Advanced Technologies means MRT will be expanded into the rare earth elements mining industry, he said, and Ucore has the rights to market it to the world.
This is a non-polluting method of mining rare earth elements, unlike the solvent approach well known in China, where much of the world’s rare earth elements are mined.
Plus, “Bokan is the first mine in the world that won’t have permanent tailings at the end of the mine because they will be put back into the ground,” McKenzie said. “This is a sub-surface mine.”
But “there are tens of thousands of tailings at sites around America and more around the world,” he said. “Effluent byproduct is lost in tailing. (Up until now) the technology couldn’t unlock it. This technology can go in and separate and extract other stuff it couldn’t have” before at currently producing rare earth element mines. Ucore will be able to offer the technology to these sites.
It also will be able to extract a more pure product from the Bokan site. Ucore has taken samples of Bokan and tested the new technology and achieved 99 percent purity with 15 separate elements. Rare earth elements come in sets of 15. A mine site will have all of the elements in a set. The elements would best be described as salt-like particles.
“Rare earths are the petroleum of the 21st century,” McKenzie said, quoting a Chinese government official, “‘Saudi Arabia has oil; China has rare earths.'” Alaska does as well, and the Bokan project site on the southeast coast of Prince of Wales Island is accessible with the necessary deep-water port for transporting of the natural resource out of the mine site. It eliminates the expense of building and maintaining roads for the Bokan project.
Dysprosium is the most important element to Ucore currently, the company official said. The U.S. Department of Energy has rated it and thulium as the elements in shortest supply in the nation. It is used in the creation of wind energy projects as well as in defense technology.
The Defense Department requires dysprosium to make magnets to be used in the building of drones. The element advances drone technology by a “quantum leap,” allowing for stronger, lighter and more temperature-resistant magnets necessary in products such as drones.
“If you have drones flying around,” McKenzie said, “then the weight is everything. … Today’s technology is all about smaller and lighter.”
In addition to dysprosium, “Our headline product, terbium, europium and yttrium, those are the most rare and most sought after, the most in demand outside of precious metals,” he said.
Ucore expects to begin the permitting process this year.
The company already has been collecting water samples at Bokan for the past 18 months. The samples are necessary for the permitting process and must be taken over a period of time.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the length of the permitting process, he said. But a reasonable objective for permits is two years. If the process begins this year, then permitting might be completed as soon as 2017.
Ucore completed a drill program at Bokan in 2014 to upgrade its resource estimate from a point of “indicated” on a rating scale to “fully indicated.” It also did geotechnical drilling. Both types of drilling advance the company toward a preliminary feasibility study.
Drilling to date at Bokan has proved a 22-year mine lifespan, although McKenzie said further drilling likely will extend that projection to half a century.
“We drilled deep holes last year,” he said. “It was risky because if you don’t hit (what you expect), then you have to disclose. But we hit at great depth. The resource out there now is potentially a billion dollar resource, and we can have many multiples of that as we go deeper.”
The results to date inspired Randy Johnson, a Ketchikan businessman and former operator of the Ketchikan Shipyard who serves as a member of Ucore’s advisory board, to invest heavily in the Bokan project.
“I’m excited about Ucore, as much as I was about the shipyard” 20 some years ago at its inception, he said. “The reason I invested is because of the team that existed. It is a very professional, experienced, quality management team. The players involved have experience, credibility and professionalism.
“Ucore is a small company,” he added. “It will have its hurdles, as you know when you try to develop a new industry. There will be those who object, but I don’t think they will have solid ground to object because this is an environmentally responsible mine.”
McKenzie acknowledged that a year ago Ucore believed it would be ready to begin the permitting process sooner, “but because of the diligent efforts of the management team to get this right,” McKenzie said, “it’s beyond what we thought.
“Slippage is more common than not. It’s a moving target. It’s difficult to put out goals, especially when it comes to permitting. … People want to know the horizon on this, but we need to be cautious. We needed to have the resource upgraded to a (fully indicated) designation, and that took extra months.”
The processes have taken more time than Ucore or Southeast Alaska would have liked.
“But we’re far better off to take time to get it right than to have to stop and then restart because we didn’t get it right,” Johnson added.
Once permitting is complete, McKenzie said, it will take only a year for construction at the mine site, which means it could be in production by 2018.
The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, through Senate Bill 99 of the 2014 legislative session, is expected to underwrite two-thirds of the $221 million Bokan development, according to McKenzie. AIDEA, which invested in projects such as Ketchikan Shipyard to elevate Alaska’s economy, has a $145 million commitment.
“The mine will create about 200 jobs,” McKenzie said, adding that it is possible that Ucore then might build a production plant in the Ketchikan area. He has visited possible plant sites in Ward Cove and on Gravina Island. “A production plant could employ tens of people at really high-paying jobs.”
McKenzie explained with the newly acquired molecular recognition technology that Ucore hopes to one day expand from only mining to producing magnets from the rare earth elements.
“We hope to have a full mine-to-magnet industry,” McKenzie said of Ucore.
Johnson pointed out that Ucore’s philosophy is to enhance the area in which it extracts a natural resource.
“The team is looking at it from the perspective of not only how to mine the resource, but add to that in the region that the resource comes from,” Johnson said. Ucore “is looking at how to leverage this for Ketchikan and the region. You don’t find that with a lot of mining companies.
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Information from: Ketchikan (Alaska) Daily News, http://www.ketchikandailynews.com