A milestone was reached by Lynas Corporation last Wednesday, February 27, 2013, at the company's Lynas Advanced Materials' Plant, known as the LAMP, when the plant's solvent-extraction (SX) system produced the first results of its initial run, 200 kg of SEG (samarium-europium-gadolinium) carbonate. The next day La-Ce (lanthanum-cerium) mixed carbonates were delivered by the system. Finally the system will deliver - and may have already delivered - mixed neodymium-praseodymium carbonate, also known as didymium in the rare-earth trade. The system is designed to produce 30 tonnes a day of products when operating at full capacity. It was announced that the system will be capable of running at full capacity by June 30, 2013; it was also announced that Phase II of the system, an additional 11,000 metric tons per year of capacity, will be in operation by Sep 30, 2013.
The campaign (the length of time from loading the plant with a mixed concentrate to the delivery of the designed product(s)) was 90 days, I was told. The sequence in which the product(s) come out is due to a process-flow design that maximizes the separation and minimizes the time required to carry it out. LAMP takes mechanically beneficiated ore concentrates from Australia, roasts them and then extracts the rare-earth elements (REEs). It then converts them to a chemical salts solution, which is then fed into the solvent-extraction (SX) system to separate the individual rare earths into chosen combinations or individual elements according to customer specifications.
I hope that it is obvious that although an SX system operates in a linear fashion, it separates the REEs from each other in an order, which is not necessarily linear, i.e. it doesn't do so by delivering its output in the order in which the REEs appear in the periodic table of the chemical elements. The process chemistry at LAMP is in fact designed to meet customer specifications for mixtures of La and Ce for the fluid cracking catalyst (FCC) manufacturers for the oil industry, cerium oxide for glass polishing, and didymium for the REE permanent magnet industry. The mid-range REEs, the SEG fraction, and the heavy REEs, the HRE fraction, are from LAMP produced as (mixed) concentrates to be processed separately and at the present time elsewhere.
LAMP is now in the ramp-up phase to prove that it can operate at full capacity in Phase I. This is the process that all such chemical engineering plants must go through, and it is NORMAL and looks, to me, as an outsider, as if it is going very well.
The open issue now is not chemical engineering, but marketing. The plant became operational behind schedule not because of technical issues but rather due to political ones. An environment activist group claimed first that the LAMP would release too much radioactivity, and would not be able to manage this waste. This argument has been overcome by multiple expert panels and site surveys and finally by the Malaysian courts and government, so the anti-Lynas group has now switched to the cry that the plant will emit toxic chemical wastes (as well as radioactive ones).
This argument falls flat with regulators who have noted that the industrial park in which the LAMP is located, also has large operations of BASF, W.R. Grace, and Tennessee Eastman, all three of which process immense volumes of oil and organic chemicals to make plastics, organic intermediates, and pharmaceutical intermediates. A spill from anyone of those plants would be far more toxic than ANYTHING that could be leaked from the LAMP! Further the LAMP has triple-redundant spill control systems that are among the most impressive I have ever seen. I wonder if the LAMP's Global 1000 neighbors are held to the same standards?
A national election will be held next month, and the anti-Lynas environmental faction is campaigning only for candidates who are willing to openly state their opposition the the LAMP. The "anti-" group recently commissioned a study by a well-known German industrial advisory group that without visiting the site condemned it as unsafe. This argument did not fly with the Malaysian Supreme Court which refused further injunctive relief to the "anti" group. The leader of that group threatened two weeks ago to "burn down the plant" if his group doesn't get their way. The tragedy is that if this very deluded man, who is apparently a doctor of medicine, were to do any such thing the danger would be not from LAMP but from its surrounding Global 1000 chemical processing plants. Many thoughtful people in Malaysia who were supporting the "anti" group have now drifted away due to the irrational actions of the group's founder.
The management and the on-site chemical engineering R&D group answered all of my questions this time as they did last time I visited in May 2012. They wouldn't disclose the proprietary extractants they use or the process parameters, but I did not expect them to.
I was extremely impressed by the professionalism of the management and of the technical support staff. Of the 400 staff currently at the plant I would say that 99% were Malay nationals along with, as far as I could see, one Australian (Lynas VP - Technology) and one Chinese national who has applied for Malay citizenship (she formerly worked in Baotou and is the Chief Research Engineer). The managing director is Malay who is an impressive individual in his demonstrated ability to manage both the plant and the company's relationships with the local people (among whom he now resides) and the political opponents and the local and national politicians.
The LAMP plant had process design assistance from Rhodia China but it was built and is operated by Malaysian contractors and employees.
Lynas has just announced that it will sell up to a certain portion of the LAMP's output preferentially to Malaysian companies that want to further process the rare earths and use the downstream products to make end-user products. I think we are seeing the seeding, thereby, of a Malaysian total rare earth supply chain.
Lynas told me that the LAMP will be profitable even if the prices of the rare earths decline beyond current levels, because it was designed to be profitable in the 2009 price period. I believe that, and I wish them good luck in their Malaysian operations.
I note that on June 30 if LAMP reaches its goal of full capacity, then it will be the largest capacity REE separation plant on earth, and if it further reaches the Phase II capacity of an additional 11,000 metric tons per annum then it will be not only the largest RE separation plant in the world but the largest one ever built anywhere. Until and if Molycorp's Project Phoenix is in the same stage as the LAMP, then the LAMP will be at least one-half of the non-Chinese world's capacity to separate/refine light rare earths. Thus, at that time, Malaysia will be second only to China in RE separation capacity.