The plant in Saskatchewan won’t just showcase less environmentally damaging processes. It also wants to take a bite out of a supply chain dominated by China.
At some point this year, in an unprepossessing 120,000-square-foot box on the outskirts of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, technicians will flip the switch in a plant that promises to do something no one else is doing in North America at the moment: transform minerals containing “rare earth elements” (REE) into specialized metal alloys that can be used to make the kinds of “permanent magnets” found in smartphones, hard drives, wind turbines and electric vehicle motors.
The $70-million-plus project run by the Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC) – will be chockablock with cutting-edge mineral-processing technology, including systems that promise to recycle the water and chemicals used in the plant.
But SRC isn’t just using this showcase to develop less environmentally damaging approaches to REE processing; it is also testing a business model built to withstand competition from China, which controls more than 90% of a seemingly obscure but highly polluting industry that produces one of the most critical ingredients in the devices that will speed along the energy transition.
SRC chief executive Mike Crabtree, a British-born chemist who’s spent his career in the resource sector, says the plant’s distinguishing feature is that it is vertically integrated, but not like Henry Ford’s sprawling River Rouge plant, which turned raw coke into Model-Ts. Rather, it’s a kind of three-in-one operation designed to gobble up raw minerals, sift out 17 separate REE, and then apply specialized chemicals to refashion them into the metals that make the magnets essential to the transition.