The SMH has an article on the rare earth potential embedded within BHP's Olympic Dam mine - Let's not waste a rare earth opportunity.
Over the past two decades, China has dominated global production and satisfied 90 per cent or more of global demand. But recently, China announced that it would severely restrict its exports of REEs due to rising problems with its mines. There is evidence of polluted waterways and radiation exposure affecting not only workers, but entire communities.
The minerals which contain REEs invariably contain some thorium and uranium, both radioactive elements. It’s not the sort of stuff you want to manage poorly, as China recently admitted.
While lack of supply due to China’s restrictions might be a short-term problem, the key long-term issues are what volume of REE resources actually exist, and how can the mining and processing be managed – especially the radioactive waste.
Surprisingly, on both fronts we can be justifiably positive.
In the past, the world had little use for REEs, so miners never bothered to look for them. Given the strong expected growth in REE demand for gadgets and green technology, however, there has been a global scramble over the past year to identify REE deposits. Mining companies are now looking very hard for any trace of REEs – and they will continue to find them.
According to Geoscience Australia, Australia has 59.4 megatonnes of sub-economic REE resources in addition to its 1.65 megatonnes of economic REEs. Some 53 Mt of the sub-economic variety can be found in the giant Olympic Dam orebody in South Australia.
At the moment, the metals extracted from Olympic Dam include copper (valued at $671 billion), uranium ($287 billion), gold ($134 billion) and silver ($15 billion). Compare this with the estimated value of the REEs in the same orebody – a whopping $4,195 billion. That’s four times Australia’s current GDP.
In its current expansion plans, BHP Billiton (owner of the Olympic Dam site) is ignoring this remarkable value. The miner considers REE extraction to be “uneconomic" and claims the technology isn’t available, despite it being similar in most steps to the current processing at Olympic Dam.