line of representatives posing for photo holding metal chain overlaid onto Saskatchewan flag
Participants at the Saskatoon rare earth summit included those pictured here (left to right); Caroline Wawzonek, NWT minister of industry, trade and investment; chief Ed Sangris, Yellowknives Dene First Nation; Ron Hyggen, Treaty 6 representative; Russell Bradford, interim CEO, Vital Metals Ltd., and Jeremy Harrison, Saskatchewan minister of trade and export development.

Industry, government and Indigenous delegates celebrate progress on two new processing plants in the prairie city that mark Canada’s arrival as a rare earth supplier for electric vehicles and other sectors

Under grey skies and wet winds, a multinational delegation met in Saskatoon late last week to celebrate the unveiling of new infrastructure that, over the next year, will establish the prairie city as a linchpin in an emerging rare earth supply chain poised to reach the EV sector.

Some 200 people — representing industry and governments at the international, provincial, local and Indigenous levels — gathered at an industrial site in the city’s north end to mark the Sept. 20 event, which organizers dubbed the “Saskatchewan Rare Earth Summit.”

The centrepiece were tours of two new rare earth processing plants currently in development, coupled with an announcement from the federal government that it is providing $7.5 million in funding to support the two facilities.

EV sector provides first customer

The first plant, a 3,100-square-metre facility representing a $20-million investment by Australia-headquartered Vital Metals Ltd., will process rare earth concentrates from the company’s Nechalacho project in the Northwest Territories, the first rare earth mine in Canada.

During its first phase of operations, Vital Metal’s plant will produce a mixed rare earth carbonate that will be sold under contract to REEtec, an Oslo, Norway-based firm that specializes in rare earth separation and purification for industrial consumers. Schaeffler, a German auto parts maker, has signed on as the first customer of REEtec’s fully refined product from Nechalacho, which will support the parts maker’s EV operations.

“We’re highlighting Saskatoon as a continental rare earth processing, research and education centre”

David Connelly, Vice-President, Cheetah Resources

At the event, Dan Vandal, federal minister for Prairies Economic Development Canada, said Vital Metals will receive $5 million via an interest-free repayable contribution under the Jobs and Growth Fund, to install processing equipment.

Across a dirt road from Vital Metal’s facility, the Saskatchewan Research Council is developing a provincially funded $55-million plant — including $2.5-million interest-free repayable federal funding under the Western Diversification Program — that will offer a complete service, taking ore from mining companies for separation and refining it to high purity ingots. The SRC will initially target the market for permanent magnets, which are used by a range of industries, including electric vehicle production, but there is potential for future expansion into other market sectors.

The SRC plant will also play a small role in the Vital Metals supply chain, offering near real-time assays to monitor production with the potential for more areas of collaboration in the future.

Putting Saskatoon on the rare earth map

Vital Metals says it will start delivering a commercial product in 2023 and reach its first production target of 1,000 tonnes annually in 2024. It expects to double that output by early 2025. SRC is targeting partial operations in 2023 and full operation in 2024.

Perhaps more significant than launch dates, however, was the event’s recognition of Canada — and Saskatoon in particular — as a nascent hub for rare earth expertise and a supply chain currently dominated by China, says David Connelly, vice-president for strategy and corporate affairs for Cheetah Resources, the Vital Metals subsidiary that operates the Nechalacho mine.

“We’re highlighting Saskatoon as a continental rare earth processing, research and education centre,” Connelly says.