CHAIRMAN and Executive Director of the Jamaica Bauxite Institute Dr Parris A Lyew-Ayee has assured that "unlike in many other countries where rare earth minerals are mined with severe negative impacts on the environment ... the Jamaican scenario is completely different".
Speaking during Monday's groundbreaking project for the US$3-million pilot plant at the institute's Hope Gardens home in St Andrew, the chairman said the process of extraction would be compatible with the environment.
"Very importantly, we are also stewards of the environment. Our red mud deposits are located in well-engineered and managed containment ponds. Dried mud will then be harvested from these ponds for processing here at our pilot plant so there will be no mining operations and related pressures on the environment. The dried mud will then be neutralised before extraction of the rare elements," he explained.
The JBI executive director said 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".
"We know it can be done," he added, noting that the launch was "a most auspicious day in the history of Jamaica and marks a new beginning".
Noting that Jamaica had ventured into the area several times before, but pulled back because of financial constraints, Lywe-Ayee said he strongly believed that "meaningful incentives should be granted to serious investors who would like to partner with us in these research and development exercises".
Scientists here have been able to extract the rare earth oxide from red mud in laboratories, but it's now time to take the next step, accoring to the JBI head.
"...Over the past year we have sampled, analysed and characterised the red mud in various locations and we are very satisfied with the results... Now we need to move on to the next step on a plant scale to ensure the commercial viability of this process. I do not need to emphasise the vast market that exists for the rare earth as it is still growing and growing exponentially," he said, counteracting arguments that Jamaica would be hardpressed to find a viable market since China currently controls some 97 per cent of the trade.
As far as the JBI head is concerned "the elusive bridge which we now must cross is how to efficiently and commercially extract the rare earth from the red mud here in Jamaica".
"We insist on that and our partners agree for it to be processed here as far downstream as we can to be able to have better benefits. We earnestly hope that the path to full commercial production will be cleared by this venture," he added.
Government announced plans to establish the pilot two weeks ago. It is being undertaken in partnership with researchers from Japanese firm Nippon Light Metal Company Limited, a publicly traded aluminium supplier headquartered in Tokyo with annual revenues of over US$7 billion and over 10,000 employees.
Nippon has confirmed high concentrations of rare earth elements in Jamaica's red mud, particularly in comparison to other areas. Mitsuru Ishihara, director and senior executive officer of the company, who arrived in the island with a delegation on Sunday, expressed certainty that there would be safety in the construction of the building which is expected to be completed in three months.
The two-storey building will be staffed jointly by personnel from the JBI and Nippon Light Metals.
"I do believe the project will (redound) to the benefit of both parties. Nippon Metal will now start to construct the pilot plant in cooperation with Jamaican builders," he said.
In the meantime, Yasuo Takase, Ambassador of Japan to Jamaica said the project is an indication that Japan is committed to partnerships between the two countries.
"Our sincere hope is that the pilot project will bear fruit to other explorations of economic opportunity for both Japan and Jamaica," he added.
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 pilot plant 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. Rare earth elements or lanthanides, are extremely valuable elements which require advanced technology for their extraction so as to realise their commercial value. They currently trade at rates of up to US $3,500 per kilogramme.
Nippon Light Metal's ultimate objective is to extract some 1,500 metric tons per annum.