Environment

Up to 2,500 per cent higher concentration levels in Ja’s red mud

'God-blessed dirt'

BY JULIAN RICHARDSON Assistant business co-ordinator richardsonj@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, February 13, 2013    

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WITH up to 2,500 per cent higher concentration of rare earth elements in its red mud deposits than global competitors, Jamaica is primed to penetrate a lucrative world market for metals crucial to everyday electrical devices, says Dr Parris A Lyew-Ayee, head of the Jamaica Bauxite Institute (JBI).

JBI has partnered with researchers from Japanese company Nippon Light Metal on the island to test the feasibility of extracting rare earths metals, used in the creation of DVDs, cellphones, rechargeable batteries, digital cameras and hybrid cars, among other things. There are some 17 elements which make up these rare earth elements, including Scandium, Cerium and Dysprosium.

While it is yet to be determined whether rare earths can be extracted economically here — for which Lyew-Ayee expressed extreme confidence — the JBI chairman and executive director said Jamaica enjoys significant supplies, which will be critical for the country as it aims to capitalise on an industry where a rapid increase in demand, in recent years, has led to a growing shortage on the world market.

"We have sampled all this red mud, we have done all the chemistry, we have done all the mineralogy, we can see what the levels are," said Lyew-Ayee, a geogolist and mineral engineer.


Jamaica is known for having among the highest-quality bauxite in the world. The island's red mud is a by-product of bauxite refining into alumina, the basic material for manufacturing aluminum.

Speaking at a Rotary Club of St Andrew North meeting on Monday, Lyew-Ayee said the country's rich supply has its genesis in volcanic ashes deposited on the island about 50 million years ago by immense volcanism in Central America. It filled depressions in limestone areas — where Jamaica's bauxite is found — that were then laterised and left behind.

"Our bauxite is God-blessed. It is the only bauxite in the world with these characteristics," he said. "It is from that source that that material comes."

Ironically, today, the waste from Jamaica's bauxite/alumina industry could be more valuable than those processing operations. Alumina is now being traded at US$330 ($31,127) per tonne, while rare earth oxides, the commodity that will be extracted, are currently being traded at rates up to US$3,500 per kilogramme.

Ground breaking was held last week for the US$3-million pilot plant project at the JBI's Hope Gardens home in St Andrew. The pilot plant project will develop methodology for neutralising the red mud with the objective of extracting some of the rare earth elements. It involves physical works at the JBI, the construction of adjunct laboratory areas, a stockpiling area for the red mud and acid, and a temporary waste storage site.

The study will seek to specifically map the potential impact on land, water and air and the effect of neutralising the by-products of the extraction process. After the extraction of the rare earths, the neutralised non-toxic tailings will then be returned to a properly sealed containment pond, which is planned to be used to recover other minerals such as iron and titanium.

Reiterating that Jamaica could be putting itself on the global commodity market for a very essential and critical product, Lyew-Ayee painted an enticing picture of downstream value-added possibilities for the country, including the creation of lots of high-skilled jobs.

"Part of the (economic) solution for the country is to be developing new industries like this which will be bringing in new investments and putting more people to work," he said.

"The market is there and investors are lining up. Everyday I get people out of the woodwork now wanting to put up plants here," he added.

China is the world's main supplier of rare earth elements. Its biggest producer in October suspended production, as Beijing looked to tighten control over rare earths mining and exports to capture more of the profits that flow to Western makers of lightweight batteries and other products, reported the Associated Press. China has about 30 per cent of rare earths deposits, but accounts for more than 90 per cent of production.

Rare earth elements aren't scarce, but few places exist with enough concentrations to be profitable, as they are difficult to isolate in a purified form and require advanced technology to extract.

Lyew-Ayee noted that the the country chose an excellent partner in Nippon Light Metal, which holds patents for extracting the oxide and whose ultimate objective is to extract 1,500 metric tons per annum. The partnership will be mutually beneficial, he said, with Nippon agreeing to have Jamaican scientists work with them and share in the processes, in Jamaica.

"Nippon has never backed down one inch — when we said 'first of all, you have to do it in our kitchen,' they have never said they are not going to share, so every sample, result and method is shared," said the JBI boss. "That, to me, is worth a lot, because we are not going to be left alone to wonder 'How do they do that?'"

What's more is that they are working with universities and schools to ensure there are, high-value jobs for Jamaicans in the potential new industry.

"We are creating value-added industries and support services, because there are going to be a lot of raw materials required and new industries developed to support it," said Lyew-Ayee, adding "For me, it is heartening that, through the school system, we have people who will be able to man these areas."

The pilot plant is expected to be constructed in four months and commercial production, if found to be viable, could start in three years, the JBI boss revealed.

Nippon, which has annual revenues of over US$7 billion and over 10,000 employees, has asked for a 20-year licence in the two lakes it is viewing in Jamaica.

Another Japanese multinational, Mitsubishi, will deal with the utilisation, the trade, and help with the marketing of the project, revealed Lyew-Ayee.

"The market is there, the whole Japanese economy is behind us, and our scientists have been working on this for a long time," he said.

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