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U.S. government actions could lead to increased support of the mining sector and the recycling of strategic materials that the country currently imports, including rare earth elements (REEs) and lithium.

Outgoing President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order and declared a national emergency Sept. 30, 2020, designed to expand the domestic mining industry, support mining jobs, alleviate unnecessary permitting delays and reduce the country’s dependence on China for critical minerals.

While President-elect Joe Biden has announced his intentions to overturn a number of Trump’s orders when he takes office Jan. 20, it is not likely that this executive order will be among them.

Citing three sources familiar with the matter, Reuters reported in late October 2020 that Biden’s campaign told U.S. miners it would support increasing domestic production of metals used in manufacturing electric vehicles, solar panels and other products that support his climate plan.

The news agency also reported that Biden supports bipartisan efforts to foster a domestic supply chain for strategic materials, including lithium, copper, REEs and nickel, that the country presently imports.

The Reuters report follows earlier speculation by Forbes that Biden could make mining more difficult to the advantage of North American recyclers.

Funding mineral processing

Trump’s Sept. 30 executive order began the process through which the Department of the Interior will develop a program to use its authorities under the Defense Production Act to fund mineral processing that protects U.S. national security.

According to a White House fact sheet on the order, the action is designed to accelerate the reopening and expansion of U.S. mines and processing plants.

“The United States is heavily reliant on imports of numerous critical minerals that are critical to America’s national security and economic prosperity, despite the presence of significant sources of some of these minerals across the United States,” the fact sheet reads.

The executive order follows five presidential determinations that Trump signed in July 2019 that found domestic production of REEs and materials is essential to the national defense.

China holds approximately 80 percent of the world’s REE supplies, according to industry estimates.

The presidential determinations note that “the domestic production capability for” rare earth metals and alloys, heavy REEs (separation and processing), light REEs (separation and processing), samarium cobalt rare earth permanent magnets and neodymium iron boron rare earth sintered material and permanent magnets are “essential to the national defense.”

Prior to the presidential determinations, Trump signed Executive Order 13817, “A Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals,” Dec. 20, 2017. This order included identifying critical minerals, developing faster permitting and finding new or better sources of those critical minerals.

Following that December 2017 order, “the Secretary of the Interior conducted a review with the assistance of other executive departments and agencies that identified 35 minerals that (1) are ‘essential to the economic and national security of the United States,’ (2) have supply chains that are ‘vulnerable to disruption’ and (3) serve ‘an essential function in the manufacturing of a product, the absence of which would have significant consequences for our economy or our national security,’” the Sept. 30 executive order states.

The order goes on to state that these minerals are used to make airplanes, computers, cellphones and advanced electronics in addition to being used in electricity generation and transmission systems. However, “For 31 of the 35 critical minerals, the United States imports more than half of its annual consumption. The United States has no domestic production for 14 of the critical minerals and is completely dependent on imports to supply its demand.”

Recyclers readying

American Manganese Inc., Surrey, British Columbia, focuses on recycling lithium-ion batteries using the patented RecycLiCo process, which extracts cathode metals, such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese and aluminum, at high purity, the company says.

On American Manganese Inc.’s website, Larry W. Reaugh, president and chief executive officer of the company, states that the Sept. 30 executive order “puts American Manganese in a favorable position given the company’s ability to alleviate the identified material dependencies and contribute to a solution.”

Not only does American Manganese own property in Artillery Peak, Arizona, that it says contains vast resources of manganese, the company also holds a U.S. patent that could be used to produce electrolytic manganese metal and electrolytic manganese dioxide from recycled lithium-ion batteries.

“The U.S. is 100 percent import-dependent on manganese, and there is no substitution for manganese in the production of steel,” Reaugh writes on American Manganese’s website.

“The United States is heavily reliant on imports of numerous critical minerals that are critical to America’s national security and economic prosperity, despite the presence of significant sources of some of these minerals across the United States.” – a Trump White House fact sheet on his Sept. 30, 2020, executive order

“The critical materials list includes commonly used lithium-ion battery materials, and American Manganese holds patents for recycling cathode materials used in lithium-ion batteries with high purity and recovery potential of lithium, nickel, cobalt and manganese,” he adds.

American Manganese also recently reported that after pilot plant optimizations that included engineering upgrades and processing parameter modifications, its RecycLiCo pilot plant leach stages achieved 99.7 percent extraction of lithium, nickel, manganese and cobalt with continuous operation.

Subsequently, the company says it will prepare the pregnant leach solution (PLS) from the lithium-nickel-manganese-cobalt oxide cathode scrap material for its technical feasibility project, Synthesis of Cathode Material Precursors from Recycled Battery Scrap. The prepared PLS will be integrated with the company’s recently acquired and specialized cathode precursor precipitation reactor. The reactor uses modern cathode manufacturing technology to produce cathode precursor product with specific chemical composition, purity, particle shape, particle size and uniformity, according to American Manganese.

Additionally, the company’s leached lithium-nickel-cobalt-aluminum oxide scrap will be prepared and integrated into the technical feasibility project. American Manganese says the final cathode precursor products will be sent to third parties for independent quality validation.

“Minimal recycling processing steps coupled with modern cathode manufacturing equipment strategically positions the RecycLiCo patented process to offer a truly circular supply chain solution for lithium-ion battery manufacturing waste,” Reaugh says.

Quebec-based Geomega Resources’ President and CEO Kiril Mugerman says his company has developed “disruptive technology” to separate and recycle REEs used in permanent magnets.

Rather than use hydrochloric or sulfuric acid in its process, Geomega uses a different reagent that Mugerman says has been adapted from another industry and is more environmentally friendly. The company can capture and recycle at least 95 percent of this reagent in its batch process while also recovering niobium, iron and four rare earth elements: neodymium, praseodymium, terbium, dysprosium. Geomega’s process produces REE oxides with 99.5 percent purity, Mugerman says, and recently received a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

The company is in the process of constructing a demonstration facility in Saint-Bruno-de-Montarville, Quebec, in the Greater Montreal area. While the pandemic has delayed progress on the plant, Mugerman says once it is operational, the plant will be able to process 1.5 metric tons in an eight-hour shift.

The company is targeting end-of-life rare earth magnets, such as those in computer hard drives and other electronic devices, as feedstock for its demonstration plant. Mugerman says magnets are among the most common applications for REEs.

Geomega has secured agreements with suppliers of magnet scrap, he says, including Jobmaster Magnets Canada Inc. in Oakville, Ontario. The companies have worked to establish a collection program for end-users and traditional recyclers to return scrap magnets to Geomega or Jobmaster to ultimately be recycled using Geomega’s process.

Geomega is open to licensing its technology, Mugerman says, once the demo plant is up and running but also could own and operate its own plants.

Potential legislative support

Legislation eventually could support recycling REEs and other critical materials.

In addition to work at the executive level, two bills before the 116th U.S. Congress also address REEs: Ted Cruz’s Onshoring Rare Earths (ORE) Act and the Reclaiming American Rare Earths (RARE) Act, a companion bill in the House introduced by Texas Reps. Lance Gooden and Vicente Gonzalez.

Cruz says, “Our ability as a nation to manufacture defense technologies and support our military is dangerously dependent on our ability to access rare earth elements and critical minerals mined, refined and manufactured almost exclusively in China. Much like the Chinese Communist Party has threatened to cut off the U.S. from life-saving medicines made in China, the Chinese Communist Party could also cut off our access to these materials, significantly threatening U.S. national security. The ORE Act will help ensure China never has that opportunity by establishing a rare earth elements and critical minerals supply chain in the U.S.”

The legislation seeks to establish a U.S. supply chain for REEs and critical minerals by providing tax incentives for the rare earths industry; requiring the Department of Defense to source rare earth minerals and critical elements from the U.S.; and establishing grants for pilot programs to develop these materials domestically. At least 30 percent of the grant dollars would be to projects relating to secondary recovery of these minerals and metals.

As of early December 2020, these bills had not advanced. However, one can assume they will be reintroduced after the 117th Congress convenes in January as Cruz was not up for re-election and Gooden and Gonzalez won their re-election bids last year.

American Manganese and Geomega Resources will be among the companies interested in the bills’ progress.

The author is editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted at dtoto@gie.net.