Innord Inc. – REE Separation


“It makes much more investment sense to have internal rare earth processing technology – otherwise it’s just sent off to processing companies in China for poor returns and no global supply advantage” – Simon Britt (PDAC 2015)

Innord Inc. (the Company) is the innovation arm of GéoMégA and was created in March 2015 to optimize the value of the separation technology by facilitating its development through direct investments of key financial partners. Innord is a wholly owned private subsidiary of GéoMégA that holds all the separation rights and laboratory equipment previously held by GéoMégA. The primary goal of Innord is to successfully scale-up its proprietary physical separation process. Looking towards the future, all research and development initiatives of GéoMégA will be conducted by Innord.
Rare Earth Elements (REE) separation is the third and the final step in making REE compounds from mineral ore. REE invariably occur together in nature and therefore any given REE mineral will contain several or most of the 17 REE in variable quantities. Consequently, when a rare earth concentrate (REC) is produced, a mixture of REE is present that needs to be further refined into their individual elements, whether in their oxide or metal form, before they can be applied in their various end products.

To get to a REC, the first step is beneficiation where the natural REE-bearing minerals disseminated through the ore are liberated by crushing and grinding followed by concentration through flotation, magnetism and other means based on their physical properties. The second step is hydrometallurgy, a processing method in which the mineral concentrate resulting from the beneficiation is broken down, using thermal and chemical agents. Although hydrometallurgy varies from project to project, depending on the REE mineral in question, both steps are relatively simple and quite achievable through conventional methods. Nevertheless, it comes down to cost, scale, environmental regulations, infrastructure and permitting when choosing the optimal combination of beneficiation and hydrometallurgy for any project.

Both these steps have only a limited capability to differentiate between the individual REE and are often done at the expense of significant overall recoveries.The reason being is that the chemical properties of REE do not deviate significantly from one another. Consequently, purification and separation of individual REE today is tremendously tedious and requires several processes with the majority of the world’s REE processing facilities today located in China. A REE refinery often includes many consecutive steps, each resulting in minute improvement in the complex REE stream with the overall processing cycle taking a great deal of time.

Today, countercurrent solvent extraction is generally accepted as the most appropriate commercial technology for separating rare earths. The key step in the extraction process is the selection of a suitable solvent combined with a suitable extraction condition. Effective extraction and separation is unlikely to be achieved in a single step, and it is therefore necessary to prepare an aqueous solution containing the REE and extract this solution repeatedly with an organic solvent. This makes the acid and the base the main consumables in the solvent extraction process, and the spent REE acidic solution becomes one of the main pollution sources. Using this method, a plant producing multiple single rare earth products may contain hundreds of stages of mixers and settlers. As a result, many separation stages are typically needed to obtain a pure product.Inherent aspects of the solvent extraction technique:

  • Large amount of organic and inorganic solvents in the process flow sheet
  • Chemical adjustment based on REE distribution of concentrate
  • High capital cost chemical facilities

Figure 1: Example costs of solvent extraction plants

Company Project Location
(SX Plant)
Separation Plant CAPEX (M$) Capacity
(REO tpy)
Currency Status Separation Capability
Lynas Mount Weld Malasia n/a1 22,000 AUD Built La, Ce, Nd/Pr, M&HREE con
Molycorp Mountain Pass USA n/a2 40,000 USD Built La, Ce, Nd/Pr, M&HREE con
Frontier Zandkopsdrift South Africa 498 20,000 USD PEA 2012 All REO, Ho+Er+Tm+Yb con
Avalon Nechalacho USA 423 10,000 CAD FS 2013 All REO, Ho+Er+Tm+Yb con
Arafura Nolan’s Bore USA 129 20,000 AUD PFS 2012 La, Ce, Pr-Nd, M&HREE con
Peak Ngualla Tanzania 49 10,000 USD PFS 2014 La, Ce, Pr-Nd, M&HREE con
Quest Strange Lake Canada 190 10,000 CAD PEA 2014 All REO
Average 258

1Built & Operational (only phase 1 for 11,000 tpy was commisioned). SX cost estiamted at $200M-$400M$
2Modernization and expansion of existing mine and infrastructure. Designed for 40K, current Production target approx 19K tpy. SX cost estimated at $400-$800M

Scientific reading on solvent extraction:

Rare Earths in the media:
Costing The Earth – Rare Earth Investigation report by CCTV News on the polluting nature of mining and processing rare earth elements in China using current methods.
Modern Life’s Devices under China’s Grip?: A report by CBS News 60 Minutes on the REE market, demands, Chinese environmental problems and China’s dominance in the sector.
The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust: A report by BBC on the Bayan Obo mines in China

Innord has assembled an industry-leading team of scientists, engineers, and visionaries who are shaping the future of sustainable REE mineral production/separation process. The primary drive for our technology is reducing the cost of REE separation and to circumvent intrinsic environmental issues of solvent based techniques.

The objective of Innord is to develop a physical separation technique for REE and thus addressing the environmental and economic issues of REE purification which are intrinsically associated to it. Furthermore, the potential of significant capital cost reduction, relative to the prohibitive costs of the current solvent extraction method, could help remove the current barrier to entry in the field of REE mining.

Magnetic separation of REE compounds

GéoMégA initiated its research and development (“R&D”) in rare earth separation in November 2011. The first initiative was undertaken together with École Polytechnique de Montréal (Department of Engineering Physics). Initially, the project was to develop a system and method for magnetic separation of REE. The difference between the magnetic susceptibility of REE was the key parameter. After 12 months of design and laboratory scale prototype development, the prototype successfully demonstrated the feasibility of magnetic separation between monophasic REE particles exploiting the magnetic susceptibility difference.With this approach, REE are precipitated selectively in the form of carbonates during an incremental pH augmentation in a micro fluidic system to prevent double crystal formation. The precipitate (1 um particle) undergoes a sedimentation process in a magnetic liquid which leverages the susceptibility contrast and tunes the buoyancy force, acting on the solid particles. An electromagnetic assembly generates strong magnetic energy gradient over the suspension to attract the paramagnetic particles and repel the diamagnetic ones. This principle is applicable in a particle settling process or selective particle trapping within the flow.

Although the method has produced positive results, the Company identified potential difficulties during scale up, most importantly that the method will be difficult to apply properly at the production level where the mixed REE concentrate is not made up of monophasic particles. Instead, each particle, however fine, is always a mix of multiple REE.

The cooperation project with École Polytechnique was officially terminated in September 2013.

Magnetic separation test at École Polytechnique de Montréal.

Free flow electrophoresis separation fo REE ions

In February 2013, with the knowledge gained from developing the magnetic separation process, the Company began investigating the behavior of REE ions in solution and free flow electrophoresis (FFE) fundamentals. Electrophoretic separation of charged particles and ions has been conventionally performed in biotechnology to sequence proteins and cells. Based on FFE principals, charged particles and ions migrate in the separation channel perpendicular to the flow, under the effect of the electric field. The speed of migration depends on the electrophoretic mobility of the particles and ions which varies based on charge, size and other parameters.

This research led to the formation of the current project for the development of a system and method for separation and purification of dissolved rare earth elements/compounds by exploiting the differences in electrophoretic mobility of REE. As a result, the Company filed for a patent request on the proposed process which can be viewed here.
Since December 2013, the Company has been conducting all its research activity at the National Research Council of Canada (“NRC”) installations in Boucherville in Québec where the Company laboratory is equipped with an ICP-EOS machine to accelerate its assays during the process testing and validation.

In January, February and May of 2014, the Company publicly disclosed the results of three (3) series of tests demonstrating the successful separation of REE. The solutions were prepared in the project headquarters by GéoMégA before being shipped to Germany for separation using a standard free-flow electrophoresis machine.
The January 2014 series of tests (link to the Jan 15 press release) demonstrated the Company’s breakthrough in REE separation with the perfect separation in a single pass of three (3) REE, namely: lanthanum, europium and ytterbium.

Demonstration series results from January 15, 2014

REE separation

REE Separation

REE Separation
The January 2014 series of tests led to successful conclusion of tests confirming physical separation of rare earth elements (“REE”).
Demonstration series results from February 24, 2014
The February 2014 series of tests demonstrated the robustness of the process with the separation of neighbour REE, namely: dysprosium/terbium, neodymium/praseodymium and praseodymium/cerium.
Demonstration series results from February 24, 2014
The February 2014 series of tests demonstrated the robustness of the process with the separation of neighbour REE, namely: dysprosium/terbium, neodymium/praseodymium and praseodymium/cerium.

The intriguing features of FFE separation of REE that the Company is investigating include:

  • Potential to attain 100% purity and complete recovery
  • Lower chemical and energy consuming technique compared to conventional methods
  • Potential for significant savings on both capital and operating costs
  • Robust and versatile technology for mineral refinery
  • No adjustment required based on REE distribution of concentrate

The ultimate target for the Company is to develop a high throughput (metric tons/day) REE separation process. Currently, the Company is developing a scale up of the process successfully validated in 2014 by increasing the scale from grams per day to kilograms per day. Major effort is being devoted to adapt the existing FFE technique to realize the ultimate separation criteria.
If successful, the emerging technology will revolutionize the forthcoming REE market and will shift the current horizon of REE availability in the future in favor of diversified, mass applications.

The full patent application can be viewed here.

Coming soon