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Jack Lifton is an Independent consultant and commentator, focusing on the market fundamentals and future end use trends of the rare metals. He specializes in the sourcing of nonferrous strategic metals and on due diligence studies of businesses in that space. His work includes exploration,... More
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  • Molycorp Mired In The Mud: Perhaps A Domestic "American"Total Rare Earth Supply Chain Should Be A Collaborative Project. 12 comments
    Nov 9, 2012 9:58 PM | about stocks: IQ, REE, GWMGF, UURAF

    I advise my natural resource production development clients that the best approach to being in the business of natural resource supply is always to plan and build to produce, profitably, less than the market segment available to you demands and to always produce at both the lowest cost per unit output and with the lowest breakeven revenue requirement. Those who fantasize that their particular resource has an endlessly growing market assume that the higher the production the better and that "economies of scale" will allow them to price their output at a lesser price than their equal size competitors. Invariably these "the bigger the better" ventures wind up with such high OPEX that they cannot compete in the real marketplace when prices or demand or both drop. Note that this is exactly what happened to the original Molycorp between 1998 when it shut down new mining and 2002 when it shut down separation of ore concentrates into marketable rare earth chemicals and their mixes. As recently as 1984, 14 years before their first shutdown, Molycorp had been the world's largest rare earth producer and certainly the only large primary rare earth mine on the planet. But by 1998 rare earths co-produced with iron in China's Bayanobo region (Inner Mongolia) had eliminated Molycorp's scale-based price advantage.

    In 2007 Molycorp's assets were acquired by a new group that decided to compete with the by then almost complete Chinese dominance of the rare earth mined material sector by going head-to-head again on volume and hoping to cut costs way back to where they could be competitive. The original Molycorp business revival model (2007) also speculated (and heavily promoted the idea ) that there would be a significant degree of support from the US military both in terms of demand and to insure security of supply.

    In 2011 the US Department of Defense finally admitted that it would only need 150 tons per year of rare earth permanent magnet alloys; this would be 0.2% of annual global rare earth permanent magnet production. By 2012 acquisitions had built a Molycorp that had 81% of its employees in the People's Republic of China and no credible company owned resource of the critical heavy rare earths required for military magnet production. Molycorp had rapidly become a company of little interest to the US DoD.

    Yet the chest thumping promotion of we will be the biggest (EVER!) continues.

    Unfortunately for the above mind-set the natural resource world is swinging back to politically aligned regional self-sufficiency as a goal and away from globalization of the natural resource supply chain. This is not just do to geopolitics; it is also due to the fact that the development to marketability of a natural resource-as an example think of crude oil marketed ultimately as gasoline or as fine chemicals-today is increasingly reliant on a region's technical skill base and its ABILITY to provide and maintain infrastructure, reliability of services, and low costs, and political stability.

    Developing nations and nations with econimes wrecked by socialismor communism have now recognized that domestic engineering and scientific skills are best used in the service of their domestic economies. Nothing is better proof of this than the fact that the KGB's successor, the FSB, is suspected to now be the largest industrial espionage operation in history. China is on the way to technological self-sufficiency and there is no better proof of that than the fact that the Chinese are today OPENLY seeking to acquire engineering and productivity improvement technologies. Just two years ago Chinese official spokesmen vehemently denied that any such help would ever be necessary.

    As a young operations manager/founder of a computer memory manufacturing operation in the early 1970s I worked with an engineer who told me that he had been a tank commander in World War II. To be precise he told me that he had commanded a German Tiger tank equipped unit at the battle of Kursk, the largest tank battle in history fought between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in the Ukraine.

    He said that in their arrogance the German generals and military technocrats had decided that bigger and more complex was better. Their Tiger tanks had the now legendary 88 mm gun, which was the best of its type ever made, and "Doctor" Porsche (Yes the same one who designed the Volkswagen and whose son brought us the modern Porsche) had also designed a monster tank, as a sort of secret weapon, which the tankers called the Elephant. This beast weighed in at 80 tons and mounted the equivalent of a 6" naval rifle. It was supposed to simply sit in place and destroy the Russian tanks at a range that left the Russians helpless to reply.

    Two unexpected but entirely discoverable, if anyone had cared to look or think, things happened: 1) The Russian tanks had a new armor, sloped armor, invented by a Ford engineer, and Stalin had literally moved the Soviet armor manufacturing capacity beyond the Urals and so beyond the range of the Luftwaffe. This resulted in swarms of Russian tanks whose sheer numbers and increased effective armor thickness overwhelmed the German superiority in firepower per tank, and 2) The Elephants were so heavy that in the muddy fields the Russians chose for the battle they simply bogged down and became unmovable becoming targets for swarms of smaller Russian tanks that "killed" them piecemeal.

    I am an advocate of vertical integration in the rare earth sector, but it can only work up to a certain degree of manageable complexity, for the simple reason that chemical engineers and metallurgists need skilled and detailed managerial oversight and guidance in their own disciplines and the fact is that those who seek to combine and integrate mining, chemical, and metallurgical engineering management under one umbrella have so far proved unable to do so PROFITABLY.

    The best plan for vertical integration in the rare earth arena outside of China today is that of Great Western Minerals Group, which has 1) A previously operated thorium mine in South Africa that it is converting over to a FREESTANDING rare earths focused mine, 2) An agreement with an experienced financially successful Chinese rare earth refiner to build a solvent extraction plant at the South African mine site to separate the particular rare earths mix found there from each other, 3) An established British sited and operated rare earth magnet alloy producer, which has traditionally operated using Chinese sourced rare earths for the last 20 years and 4) is constructing a new rare earth metals refinery in the UK to produce high purity rare earth metals from the separated high purity rare earth salts to be produced by the SX plant in Africa and which metals so produced will then enhance and ultimately replace Chinese material. The result will be a Western non-Chinese vertically integrated producer of rare earth permanent magnet alloys, which alloys will go to the current European and Japanese, highly experienced, rare earth permanent magnet makers that today already buy such Chinese metal based alloy materials from Great Western's Less Common Metals wholly owned subsidiary. The customers will not know when Chinese feed stocks cease to be used by LCM. In the GW model each technological unit is self-contained and internally managed technically. Only finance functions are directly controlled by the conglomerate's management.

    By contrast I think the Molycorp model seems to have placed or hired less experienced technical management and engineers, who have not produced a profit except in an anomalous period of price spikes, with which they had nothing to do,over the seasoned engineers and managers of the only consistently profitable (majority) western owned, but sited mainly in China, rare earth separation and metal and alloy maker. Molycorp seems to have allocated neither time nor capital for the steep learning curves it would need to surmount and surpass to understand the businesses it decided to buy rather than develop.

    If I were trying today to construct a domestic American total supply chain for producing rare earth based end-user components I would forge the total supply chain from some or all of the following links:

    A. Light and Heavy Rare Earth Process Leach Solutions:

    Rare Element Resources (NYSEMKT:REE), and

    Ucore Rare Metals (OTCQX:UURAF)

    B. Deradioactivation of, Separation of, and purification of the total spectrum of the rare earths (atomic numbers 57-71) and their commonly associated elements (Scandium and Yttrium)

    Intellimet (Private)

    C. An American Rare Earth Metals' Metals Maker:

    Great Western Technologies, Inc. (A wholly owned American subsidiary of Canada's GWMGF.PK)

    D.An American magnet alloy maker,

    Again this would be Great Western Technologies, Inc. as above,

    E. An American magnet maker (One or all of the many members of the USMMA, the United States Magnet Materials Association), and

    A rare earth metals recycling company.

    I would organize this as Technology Metals Recycling Corporation (private).

    I note that it is my belief that one broad spectrum rare earth separation and refining operation could provide enough capacity for all of America's domestic demand, and I note that the technology to do this with solvent extraction (SX) and Ion Exchange (NYSE:IEX) already exists in the USA as does solid phase extraction (NYSE:SPE), which is now in the process of proof of concept validation.

    In order for the USA to become self-sufficient in rare earths it will be necessary for capitalists to make actual production at a profit a goal of equal importance with making quick money in the stock market.

    The most capital needed for a domestic American total supply chain would be to construct the two mines above already in development. This would be around 500 million dollars. ALL of the rest of the supply chain could be put into operation with less than 125 million dollars.

    America could not only be self sufficient in rare earths but be exporting rare earth products competitively for the above investment. America's investment community has already invested many times this amount in unrealistic get-rich-quick dreams.

    The money wasted on Solyndra would have made America self sufficient in rare earths. Washington bureaucrats should stop talking to each other and to those who buy them dinner and a lot of drinks and start looking at the real markets and needs of the American industrial economy.

    Disclosure: I am long OTCPK:GWMGF.

    Stocks: IQ, REE, GWMGF, UURAF
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  • hackenzac
    , contributor
    Comments (310) | Send Message
    Hello Mr Lifton. Do you feel that GWTI is currently superfluous to Great Western's current vertical integration plan? Since they're going with Chinese separation in South Africa, they're not wholly non Chinese, so how might that affect them in the event of some sort of increasing trade war? Also, do you think that Ucore has some degree of ownership of SPE as it pertains to deradioactivation and separation of rare earths? Ucore is making "proprietary" claims to the technology at least as it pertains to Bokan. Your sole pick of Intellimet seems to indicate that you believe that solid phase extraction, SPE, is the superior and preferred separation technology which is owned by what is essentially a guy operating out of his garage. Do you think that they might go public or get bought out and by whom? Just how important are they and their technology?
    10 Nov 2012, 11:26 AM Reply Like
  • Jack Lifton
    , contributor
    Comments (431) | Send Message
    Author’s reply » Hakenzac,


    You have asked a good and a multi-part question, but I don't think all of the parts are necessarily inter-related.


    1. In my opinion the GWTI "operation" is indeed today superfluous to GW's vertical integration model. Note, however, that the Chinese separation technology supplier is only a minority capital partner and that, as I read the published documents the Chinese company is entitled to a percentage of the operation's "profits" not of any "metals."


    2. It is my understanding that Ucore indeed has an exclusive license for using SPE technology from Intellimet, specifically developed for the purpose, to process its Bokan ore. I do not believe that Ucore has at this point any additional claims on the process as used to separate the REEs or to de-radioactivate the ore concentrates (other than from its company owned deposits in Alaska)


    3. Intellimet is the property of a 68 year old PhD chemist and his immediate family and lifelong collaborators, which group includes two more PhDs in chemistry from Stanford. The 68 year-old, Dr Richard Hammen, introduced himself to me at a Hard Assets Conference in 2009 in San Francisco. I listened to his story and failed to really understand it fully, but I asked him to call Mark Smith at Molycorp and offer his services and/or technology. I had visited Mountain Pass in June of that year, and I saw then that they were working on bringing the original SX plant back on line after its half-decade shutdown. Molycorp was then private, and I had not heard of any plan to replace the original SX plant. In fact I then thought that Dr Hammen was talking about a form of Ion Exchange separation, which was used then, and is still used, to ultra-purify the heavy rare earths in particular. I didn't think that Molycorp knew much about IEx and I thought they might be interested.


    I had forgotten the meeting when I got a call from an irate Mark Smith late in 2009 or early in 2010 berating me for "disparaging" Molycorp by telling Dr Hammen that i thought they could use his help in process engineering. It seemed to me that it was Mr Smith who was being foolish by ignoring Dr Hammen. I was not intimidated by a threat to sue me made by Smith on that call, and I told him that I would send him my jurisdictional information to help his lawyers. I never heard from him again-to this day.


    However a year ago Dr Hammen called me and asked me to come to his lab-I have never been to his home or garage (if he has one)-in Missoula, Montana. I did, and I was delighted to see a table top demonstration of the separation of neodymium from praseodymium. I was delighted because it was a demonstration of a technology, Solid-Phase extraction, that I had never known to be applicable to REE separation or purification, and the process was hundreds of times faster than SX or IEx , very very inexpensive, and could be used with any amount of feed NO MATTER HOW SMALL.


    It is no secret that Intellimet is working with Ucore, but I have a non-disclosure agreement with both parties, so I cannot comment on the work other than I have above.


    I think that the Ucore PEA, which should be out shortly, will be of very great interest to the REE mining and refining community.


    4. I think that anyone who hasn't already contracted to utilize or build an SX plant for separation of the REEs should wait for a few more months before doing so. I also think that those who have built or are building SX plants for light REEs separation, in particular, should wait before commissioning any further SX/IEx plants for heavy REE separation.


    Thank you sincerely for asking your questions


    10 Nov 2012, 09:12 PM Reply Like
  • hackenzac
    , contributor
    Comments (310) | Send Message
    Thank you for your excellent reply. My thoughts on Ucore's "proprietary technology" is that using SPE to separate thorium for example from Bokan ore applies nearly the same to all hard rock ree ores with the same problem and by extension perhaps, some of the other desirable separations using this process. The chemistry doesn't change, the process doesn't change and since Ucore contracted with Intellimet to specifically develop it, if anyone else wants to use it, it's proprietary to some extent, to Ucore. Does that make sense to you? I appreciate that you have confidentiality constraints but your insights are appreciated.
    10 Nov 2012, 11:26 PM Reply Like
  • Jack Lifton
    , contributor
    Comments (431) | Send Message
    Author’s reply » Good point, and I don't actually know the answer to the question of Ucore's extent of ownership and coverage of the deradioactivation aspect of SPE, but I do know that developing the SPE deradioactivation process itself is a very significant achievement.However I must say that I disagree with your point that the process is universally applicable to all "hard rock ree ores." I suspect that a variation of the process used for Bokan will almost always be applicable, but the "variation" may be substantial. Note that any and all of the ores must be beneficiated and chemically cracked to produce a process leach solution, which is the feedstock into the SPE system(s). Ore cracking, which is known in the trade as "metallurgy" is far from an exact "science." In fact several well known large deposits have proved to be intractable to cracking economically.


    I congratulate Ucore on its singular achievement, but I would much rather not have the problem of deradioactivation than have to devise a chemical processing/mining engineering solution to removing it for further processing to get at the desired elements. Ucore has done what everyone in mining thought would be impossibly expensive and for which no good technology has existed, or at least put into use for this purpose, up until now anyway.


    Canadian securities' law requires that announcements of grade, tonnage, process, and process efficiency and cost be verified by independent qualified third parties, so Toronto's Bay Street talks about everything but the important stuff when its denizens are selling exploration company shares. I am in America , so I can tell you there is a very good probability that the REE separation/purification game is about to change dramatically. Get a large popcorn and wait for the main feature (for those of you old enough to understand that metaphor)
    11 Nov 2012, 10:18 AM Reply Like
  • nancy drew
    , contributor
    Comments (2) | Send Message
    Good morning Jack two question have you ever payed a visit to Steenkampskraal and what do you think of the drill results at the site, they keep getting better and the mine life keeps growing. thanks
    11 Nov 2012, 01:28 AM Reply Like
  • nancy drew
    , contributor
    Comments (2) | Send Message
    Jack have you ever payed a visit to Steenkampskraal and what do you think of the mine now that drill results show that the mine could have a life of 20 some years plus? and still more drilling going on next door.
    11 Nov 2012, 01:29 AM Reply Like
  • u4eah
    , contributor
    Comments (16) | Send Message
    Hello Jack; and thankyou for your always usefull insight !
    - Below; is a portion of Ucores recent press release; ... Ucore Reports Dysprosium Separation Breakthrough


    "HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA--(Marketwire - Oct. 3, 2012) - Ucore Rare Metals Inc. (TSX VENTURE:UCU)(OTCQX:UURAF) ("Ucore" or the "Company") is pleased to report the results of recent laboratory experiments which have successfully separated the critical metals: dysprosium (Dy), neodymium (Nd) and erbium (Er) from the other rare earth elements (REE) found in a mixed concentrate. The work was performed by IntelliMet LLC of Montana, with composite solutions designed specifically to replicate the contents of the ore from Ucore's Bokan Mountain deposit in South East Alaska. These metallurgy findings are significant, since Dy and Nd are now listed as among the most critically important strategic metals to the United States as determined by the US Department of Energy and US Department of Defense.


    "This is yet another industry leading advancement for Ucore," said Jim McKenzie, President & CEO of Ucore. "The isolation of a chemical form of dysprosium from a US-based deposit has been a 'holy grail' of sorts in the domestic rare earth industry. Now that dysprosium has been liberated at laboratory scale, our intent is to pursue this breakthrough at a pilot plant level"


    - It is my understanding; that the cracking of hard-rock Ree deposits is amongst the most complex & challenging; ...particularly given that no two given deposits, share identical mineralogy.
    - The above sentence caught my attention; "" The work was performed by IntelliMet LLC of Montana, with composite solutions designed specifically to replicate the contents of the ore from Ucore's Bokan Mountain ""
    - I appreciate you non-disclosure agreements; therefore based on your vast experience; could you comment generally, on how well laboratory scale breakthroughs, tend to scale up to the real world, full-size, production-plant volumes.
    - I must admit here; my slight skepticism; based on prior so-called revolutionary lab-scale technical breakthrus in the petro-chemical industry; ...that failed to work as planned when scaled to full-size production!


    11 Nov 2012, 09:04 AM Reply Like
  • Jack Lifton
    , contributor
    Comments (431) | Send Message
    Author’s reply » Everyone:


    Parr, of course, should be "par," the golf term. SA's editing software leaves much to be desired for iPads.


    11 Nov 2012, 09:57 AM Reply Like
  • u4eah
    , contributor
    Comments (16) | Send Message
    Hello Jack; ... Re IntelliMet & Ucore seperation breakthrough; I'd still be interested to hear your comments;
    - Per previous post; ...-"" It is my understanding; that the cracking of hard-rock Ree deposits is amongst the most complex & challenging; ...particularly given that no two given deposits, share identical mineralogy.
    - The above sentence caught my attention; "" The work was performed by IntelliMet LLC of Montana, with composite solutions designed specifically to replicate the contents of the ore from Ucore's Bokan Mountain.""...( Care to translate this for us neophytes
    Jack? ... and furthermore; why not use the "real McCoy" processed Bokan rock, as the experimental feedstock? ...)
    - I appreciate your non-disclosure agreements; therefore based on your vast experience; could you comment generally, on how well laboratory scale breakthroughs, tend to scale up to the real world, full-size, production-plant volumes.
    - I must admit here; my slight skepticism; based on prior so-called revolutionary lab-scale technical breakthrus in the petro-chemical industry; ...that failed to work as planned when scaled to full-size production!""
    13 Nov 2012, 07:06 AM Reply Like
  • Jack Lifton
    , contributor
    Comments (431) | Send Message
    Author’s reply » u4eah,


    Translation: Until a metallurgy is run at full "scale," it is also just on-going laboratory scale work. In chemical engineering scale-up a pilot plant will be built after the successful laboratory work and it will then be the pilot plant that is scaled (or "ramped up" [if large enough])up to full production.


    Note please the problems Molycorp seems to be having are in scale-up. The information is opaque but it seems to be safety design that is flawed; it may be even a process flaw, which is an economic setback (to say the least) when a chemical engineering project must be redesigned as to process flow.


    Now, finally, as to using a "synthetic process leach solution," this is what one must almost always do first prior to the mine being permitted for full-scale "mining." In Ucore's case it was the desire to synchronize the separation work with the hydrometallurgical work that drove the use of "synthesized" PLS.


    In Ucore's case its metallurgy, or most efficient low cost extraction of the desired elements from the ore, was done, as is standard procedure, by a specialized independent and qualified third-party contractor. This contractor determined what reagents and conditions to use to minimize costs and maximize efficiency.


    In order to reduce costs and time required to complete the project Ucore retained Intellimet and kept it abreast of the metallurgical work.


    Once the metallurgy was settled (not necessarily finished) Ucore had Intellimet "synthesize" a solution of the process leach solution that would result from the proposed metallurgy and begin its, Intellimet's, work on separation and purification.


    Intellimet's first success was in designing a process to pre-treat the PLS at the metallurgical "hydromet" plant (nearby or on site at Bokan Mtn) to remove the nuisance elements, iron, uranium, and thorium from the PLS. This was a substantial move. Uranium and thorium MUST be removed from the PLS to a level below that allowed for radioactive content for commercial transport, but JUST AS IMPORTANTLY the presence of large quantities of IRON, which is common in rare earth deposits, directly impacts the cost of separation and purifying the PLS, because iron must be chemically removed before the PLS is run for rare earth separation and purification. Feeding solutions containing iron into solvent extraction or solid-phase extraction plants designed to separate the rare earths from each other can be a costly mistake.


    In general laboratory scale-up in Chemical engineering is as much an art as a skill. Experience really counts. In my 30s I worked with a company that did contract scale up and pilot production of pharmaceuticals for major Pharma concerns in Europe, and I can tell you reproducing laboratory work in pharmaceuticals for scale up purposes makes rare earth separation seem quite basic BY COMPARISON. I note that Dr. Hammen of Intellimet first met solid phase extraction in his work as a young PhD in the American pharmaceutical industry. I note also that China's leading academic expert in solvent extraction separation for rare earths also learned his craft in the pharmaceutical industry and even today consults to the American pharmaceutical industry on the separations of (molecularly) almost identical sugars and proteins from each other.


    Separation aside the best example of ignored scale-up roadblocks that I know is the glossing over by the lithium-ion battery industry of the near impossibility of scaling up ECONOMICALLY the various laboratory successes in energy density or recharge times that are daily reported as "breakthroughs."


    One of the biggest problems in the American mining industry is the lack of general research and development in the separation and refining of the technology metals that are co-produced or produced as byproducts.


    (Political incorrectness alert): Until Americans start promoting engineering and science AGAIN with the same vigor now used to promote gender and diversity studies we are riding a wagon with a broken axle, and the horse is getting tired. Our American values and the amount of capital we devote to them are seriously out of proportion to our most urgent needs. I am not preaching autarky (look it up), I am preaching autonomy.


    Thanks for the opportunity to rant.


    13 Nov 2012, 10:57 AM Reply Like
  • u4eah
    , contributor
    Comments (16) | Send Message
    VERY interesting; Jack !
    - My interpretations then; ... if I understand correctly!
    - (1) The most foreward; outside-of-the-box thinking goes something like this; ... CONFUCIUS say; ..."look to pharmaceutical research -industry finding; ...to discover deep-inner secret; ...to un-locking REE"
    (did you dine-out Chinese last nite Jack?) lol
    - (2) Synthesizing the PLS; ...was an implementation set up to; co-work simultaneously; to advance the projects timelines.
    - (3) And yes; ... "Scaling-Up"; is not without its disappointments, or inherent risks! ... (but the rewards can also be significant!)


    13 Nov 2012, 01:48 PM Reply Like
  • jerryf01
    , contributor
    Comments (45) | Send Message
    About the only thing I see that tends to excite me are the Press Releases from most of the micro mining Cos. We have this, and we have that, we are going to do this, and that, but the only thing I see happening is the extension of warrants (who has these warrants?, Insiders?). Just imagine, if some of the hype occurred, I could be a happy camper
    There is no one who wants to get into a "great mining Co", more than me.
    And I'm looking as you can see. I looked at some of the charts of these "micro" mining cos and it looks like they all use the same play book, we are going to..., we have ..., but again no where do I see anything they have done. Companies make good money mining just plain rock, coal, gypsum, phosphate and other common materials, but yet these "penny" co's. have all this stuff, going to do all these things, but yet never make any money, Working with high value materials. What am I missing?
    Oh I have found one co. Not the greatest but there is hope, one of the bigger investment managers have demanded the Chairman and CEO retire, if he does, I'm in.
    The Gamble, The premium on a LEAP call.
    At least they make "some" profit.
    A bunch of folks sent me an invite to join them in FCX a couple of weeks ago, and boy did I jump on it. Management, that's what it all about.
    Good luck and a very Happy New Years from the Philippines.
    29 Dec 2012, 11:00 PM Reply Like
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