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Sumitomo to build Philippines’ 1st rare earths recovery plant

If successful, a pilot plant under development at Sumitomo’s Coral Bay Nickel facility will be the Philippines’ first REE producer.

Sumitomo Metal Mining Co. (SMM) announced Monday it has decided to construct a scandium recovery pilot plant at its majority owned subsidiary, Coral Bay Nickel Corporation (CNBC), located on Palawan Island in the Philippines.

Scandium is a rare earth element used in a variety of applications including: as an additive to enhance the strength, heat resistance and corrosion resistance of aluminum; as an electrolyte used in solid oxide fuel cells; and as an electrode used in metal halide lamps and alkaline batteries.

Small amounts of scandium are contained in the ore used at Coral Bay in the production of nickel-cobalt mixed sulfide applying high-pressure acid leach (HPAL) technology.

“For some time SMM has been working to develop a scandium recovery method at its Niihama Research Laboratories in Ehime Prefecture,” said the company. “This effort has not led to the attainment of technology enabling efficient recovery of scandium from the nickel-cobalt mixed sulfide production process.”

Plans call for the scandium oxide pilot plant to be constructed by the end of 2013 and for trial production to commence at a level of 10 kg per month in 2014. “Based on the results of the test operation of the pilot plant, the company will aim for construction of a scandium oxide production line of commercial scale and the launch of (a) related business in 2015,” Sumitomo said in a news release.

Global production of scandium is estimated at 10 tonnes per year. Major producers of the rare earth element are the United States, Ukraine, Russia and China.

In a letter Monday to the Philippine Stock Exchange, CNBC minority shareholder, Nickel Asia Corp. Senior Vice President, Emmanuel L. Sampson, said the ore being supplied to CNBC comes from Nickel Asia’s Rio Tuba Nickel Mining Corp. mining operations adjacent to the CNBC plant.

If the CNBC pilot plant is successful, “it will represent the country’s first production of a rare earth element, an important step in the development of the Philippines’ mineral resources sector,” said Sampson.

“It is also anticipated that if successful, a similar process to recover Scandium oxide will be used by Taganito HPAL Nickel Corp., also majority owned by SMM, which is constructing the country’s second HPAL plant (THPAL) in Taganito, Surigao del Norte,” said Nickel Asia. “Construction of the plant is nearing completion and will be commissioned shortly. It will source its lateritic nickel ore from our 65%-owned subsidiary, Taganito Mining Corp.”

Nickel Asia has a 6% equity interest in CNBC and a 22.5% equity interest in THPAL.

“Owing to its modest volume of production and high cost, to date demand for scandium has been limited,” said Sumitomo, “but as supplies stabilize, growth is anticipated particularly in conjunction with its main applications as an aluminum additive and as an electrolyte used in solid fuel cells.”

“Leveraging its progress in developing scandium recovery technology, going forward SMM aims to strive for efficient recovery of other useful metals,” said the Tokyo-based base metal mining and smelting company.

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