In a rare example of joined up governmental thinking, the announcement by Pensana Rare Earths that it has submitted a planning application for a $125 million rare earth oxide refining facility. The facility would be near Hull in northeast England and would plug a gap in an ore-to-finished-turbine manufacturing landscape developing rapidly in the U.K.’s northeast.
U.K.’s rare-earths-to-turbine supply chain
In November, Innovate UK, a government agency, awarded funding in November to Less Common Metals (LCM), a rare earth alloys producer. The funding is aimed at conducting a feasibility study into establishing a fully integrated supply chain for rare earth permanent magnet production in the U.K.
The sense of momentum is already palpable.
Pensana would produce rare earth oxides used to manufacture the powerful magnets that drive the motors of offshore wind turbines and electric vehicles. The firm cites the proximity of one of the world’s largest offshore wind farms at Dogger Bank as an attraction.
However, in reality it is the turbine factory GE has proposed that is the real draw.
Metaphorically sitting in between Pensana and GE’s turbine plant would be LCM based in Ellesmere Port near Liverpool and the only rare earth magnet alloy producer in Europe, according to the Financial Times. Encouraged by the U.K. government’s Innovate UK, LCM is also moving into metal production. It would no doubt welcome a domestic raw material supplier and a turbine customer, both nearby.
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Pensana plant to process neodymium, praseodymium
The Pensana plant in Hull will process neodymium and praseodymium from a proposed mine in Angola, the Financial Times reports. Pensana hopes its ecologically sound alternative to Chinese suppliers of rare earths oxides proves sufficiently attractive to support the higher production and environmental costs a U.K. refinery would face over Chinese plants.
Meanwhile, China controls over 80% of global production of the 17 rare earths metals. However, it suffers poor environmental fallout as a result of historically lax controls.
On the other hand, oversight is improving. Furthermore, with years as the world’s largest supplier, China’s economies of scale support its ongoing dominance of the market.
The Pensana plant would be sited at the Saltend Chemical Park. The site is already home to chemical supply and waste disposal firms. Among them are BP Chemicals, chemicals company Ineos and Air Products.
Environmental groups will raise concerns regarding the refinery potentially being a source of pollution.
But that challenge is ultimately also Pensana’s strength.
It will need prove the reliability of its controls and supporting infrastructure sufficiently to gain regulatory approval. If it does, then it will qualify as the environmentally responsible alternative to China it needs to be.
That’s certainly true for the domestic turbine and electric vehicle motor market. In addition, it’s also true but for a rapidly electrifying European market, too.
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