The Rare Earths Mine That Won’t Need a Single Shovel – by Yusuf Khan (Wall Street Journal – January 17, 2024)

Two South African gypsum waste piles could be a billion dollar bonanza of critical materials

Just before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, South African mining veteran George Bennett was offered the opportunity to bid for two waste piles of gypsum, left over from decades of phosphate mining in a small town near the Mozambique border.

Bennett built more than 20 mining projects over his career, but this one really caught his attention. Analysis of samples he took showed that those waste stacks held a treasure trove—high concentrations of the rare-earth minerals needed to make the permanent magnets used to power offshore wind turbines and electric vehicles.

Rare-earth minerals aren’t actually that rare, but it is unusual to find them in sufficiently high concentrations that would make mining them economical. Having a massive pile of them above ground is even rarer. And new sources are highly valuable because China currently controls most of the extraction and refining of rare earths—a dominance that it is looking to maintain through a ban on the export of rare-earth processing technologies, which it introduced in December.

Rainbow Rare Earths could be a significant non-Chinese source of crucial energy-transition materials, according to Bennett, the company’s chief executive. The company, which was listed in London in 2017, expects to generate a net present value of more than $1 billion from those two South African waste piles, he said.

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