Jamaica could cash in big on rare earth elements

(Jamaica Observer) A Japanese aluminium company believes that there’s big money to be made from red mud deposits here and has put up US$3 million for a pilot project that could result in Jamaica earning billions in foreign exchange.

According to Energy Minister Phillip Paulwell, Nippon Light Metal Company Limited researchers have confirmed high concentrations of rare earth elements in Jamaica’s red mud, and are convinced that those elements can be extracted efficiently.

“The concentration of rare earth elements in mineable quantities around the world is unusual, and the concentration of rare earth elements found in Jamaica’s red mud deposits are significantly greater than what is known about other red mud sites around the world,” Paulwell told Parliament on Tuesday.

He said Nippon Light Metal’s ultimate objective is to extract 1,500 metric tons per annum.

Rare earth oxides, the commodity that will be extracted, are currently being traded at rates up to US$3,500 per kilogramme, according to Paulwell.

“When we compare that to alumina, which is now being traded at US$330 per tonne, it is clear that this resource presents an opportunity Jamaica must pursue, and which must be managed in such a way that Jamaica and Jamaicans benefit significantly,” the minister said.

Even at US$1,000 per kilogramme, 1,500 metric tons of rare earth metals have the potential to earn US$1.5 billion annually.

He also assured that the country was protected against exploitation as the Crown Property (Vesting) Act stipulates that any minerals found in Jamaica are owned by the Crown. Licences granted to bauxite/alumina companies are specific to the extraction of bauxite ore only.

Paulwell explained that in September 2012, Nippon Light Metal entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Jamaica Bauxite Institute

(JBI) for the establishment of the pilot project to determine the commercial scope of the project.

He described the project as “the starting line of an opportunity that has the potential to redefine Jamaica’s economic prospects in a positive way”.

Rare earth elements, or lanthanides, are extremely valuable elements which require advanced technology for their extraction so as to realise their commercial value, Paulwell explained. There are some 17 elements which make up these rare earth elements, including Scandium, Cerium and Dysprosium.

He said while history has shown that traditionally rare earth elements were not in high demand, and that the rare earth elements that were supplied to the international market emanated from China at a very low cost, in recent times demand has grown exponentially, owing predominantly to advances in modern technology and the rare earth elements becoming a key component of those advances.

“Today, several industries are critically dependent on the supply and availability of rare earth elements, chief among them the electronics and ICT industries. Typically, rare earth elements are key components of computers, Liquid Crystal Displays and Cathode Ray Tube monitors, hybrid automobiles, wind power turbines, magnets, television sets, energy-efficient light bulbs, sensors, GPS technologies, CD and DVD drives, digital cameras, most optic lenses, most communication devices, as well as satellites,” the energy minister said.

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