Exclusive: Mike Crabtree, CEO of the Saskatchewan Research Council, outlines the commercial and research potential linked to the planned completion of the SRC’s Rare Earth Processing Facility in 2024
The Saskatchewan Research Council’s (SRC) Rare Earth Processing Facility, now under development in Saskatoon, isn’t much to look at. Located in a low-key industrial park in the city’s north end, a passerby could easily take it for little more than a large warehouse.
A different story is unfolding inside. The Saskatchewan government — via the SRC — is building a $55-million facility that will be one of North America’s only rare earth processing plants when it comes online, scheduled for late 2024.
At full commercial capacity, the plant will deliver an estimated 400 tonnes of rare earth metals to market each year, enough to manufacture some 500,000 EV motors (although that’s not the only market).
The project was sanctioned by the Saskatchewan government in 2020, a year after Mike Crabtree was name SRC’s president and CEO. Today, he’s excited to be steering it completion.
Already, the plant is winning acclaim for technological innovation and new processes that will set global standards for sustainability in rare earth processing. Most important, however, is its potential to establish Saskatchewan, and Canada, as a hub for the emerging rare earth industry — both as commercial enterprise and as a centre for research and development.
Electric Autonomy was delighted when Crabtree accepted our invitation to sit down for an exclusive interview to discuss that promise, its significance from an industrial policy standpoint, and to explain why Saskatchewan’s rare earth future may be closer than it looks.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Electric Autonomy: This is a tough question, but can you describe what SRC is building in Saskatoon in simple terms?
Mike Crabtree: It’s a mid-stream rare earth processing facility. In the parlance of rare earths, it’s a minerals-to-metals plant. It’s a three-stage integrated facility.
Essentially, it converts the monazite [an imported mineral that contains rare earth elements] into mixed rare-earth chlorides through a hydro-metallurgy process [also known as “hydromat”]. That’s the first stage. In the second stage, the rare earths are separated into individual rare earths or combinations of rare earths that are marketable. The third stage is taking the neodymium and praseodymium oxides — NDPR — to the metals stage. The metals are then taken to make NDPR alloys, which are used for a variety of processes, mainly for producing magnets for electric vehicles.
Electric Autonomy: Are the NDPR alloys like ingots at the end of the process?
Mike Crabtree: Yes. That’s the kind of thing that catches headlines because it’s minerals to metals. But there are 15 other rare earths that are produced, either singly or in combination. That’s important because [some of those rare earths] — like dysprosium, terbium, and samarium — are really high value… Terbium is $4 million a tonne.
Electric Autonomy: What volume do you expect the facility to produce when it’s fully operational?
Mike Crabtree: The plant is designed to take in about 3,000 tonnes of monazite annually. And because it’s about 60 per cent rare-earth-oxide equivalent, the output is about 1,600 tonnes of rare-earth oxides, of which about 400 tonnes go on to become their metals. Basically, the metals represent about one-quarter to one-third of the overall output.
Electric Autonomy: Is commercial production your primary goal?
Mike Crabtree: The overall goal is to develop a research and commercial facility. A full-commercial monazite plant is around 10,000 tonnes, maybe 12,000 tonnes. So, the SRC facility is about one-third scale, but it is still a profitable business. The 400 tonnes of NDPR that will be produced is sufficient to manufacture half a million engines for electric vehicles. This isn’t a pilot-scale test platform.
Electric Autonomy: How do you see the SRC plant fitting into the evolution of a rare earth supply chain in Canada?
Mike Crabtree: It’s going to be really important for Canada, but I think it’s going to be really important for North America, too. This will be one of only two or three plants in existence in North America.
There’s another thing: There is a lot of focus these days on battery minerals, you know, lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper. Rare earths are a bit different. They get used in lithium batteries, but in very, very small quantities…. The battery of an EV weighs hundreds of kilograms, which is mostly lithium. The rare earth component of a 400-horsepower Tesla engine is a few hundred grams. But no rare earths, no engine — and no energy transition. They are many orders of magnitude lower in quantity but no less critical.
Electric Autonomy: Why is the SRC investing in processing now? There’s very little rare earth mining in North America at this time.
Mike Crabtree: This is an interesting chicken-and-egg situation. Do you wait to build out your midstream until there’s significant Canadian supply? Or do you put the mid-stream capabilities in place and source material internationally but are then able to give nascent mine operations off-take agreements? You can give them a route to market rather than having to sell that product to China. That’s the approach of the government of Saskatchewan. Let’s build the front-end. We can source the monazite and other products in that seven-to-10-year period while Canadian mines come onstream.
Electric Autonomy: SRC has taken some innovative approaches to the design of the facility. Tell us about those.
Mike Crabtree: SRC has been working on rare earths for about 15 years… Over that period, we built different scales of separation, from a few hundred millilitres up to a few hundred litres. When the Saskatchewan government sanctioned this project in 2020, we looked at the commercial technologies that were available. And like everybody, you look to the Chinese. So, we looked at the Chinese technology, which was all in the public domain literature. And frankly, we said that based on our experience, and based on our capability, there’s a better way to do this.
Electric Autonomy: How so?
Mike Crabtree: What we’ve done is taken the basic technology and added in a whole bunch of intellectual property around how the processes actually work. Here’s an example. In other jurisdictions, a plant like this might have 50 to 80 people running the separation process. There are so many cells and so many little valves you have to tweak to maintain equilibrium.
What we did was take our expertise and use it to build a digital twin of the whole separation system. On top of that, we added artificial intelligence to learn how to run the digital twin. When we bring on the real system, we’ll flip the AI from the digital twin to the real system. We think this will reduce the time to achieve steady-state operation from weeks to hours and days — a significant efficiency gain. The whole plant will be operable via artificial intelligence with about five to 10 people rather than 80.
Electric Autonomy: That sounds like a major cost savings.
Mike Crabtree: It’s really important that we gain that operating cost advantage because, in other parts of the plant, we’ve spent a lot of capital to achieve sustainability and recyclability. We’ve built a plant that is going to be the most sustainable in the world. In the U.S., hydromat plants use vast quantities of water and chemicals. With this plant, not one single drop of liquid will be emitted. Everything will be recycled and reused.
Electric Autonomy: Why is this a government project as opposed to a private-sector investment?
Mike Crabtree: The market is extremely volatile, and private-sector investors got burned [in the rare earth space] in the early 2010s. So, the government is now applying what you could call a ‘strategic override’ to de-risk markets for subsequent large-scale private investment.
Governments around the world are introducing billions of dollars of government capital to build out rare earth capabilities outside of China. The expectation and hope is that once you de-risk the technology, once you de-risk the market, private equity and private banks will move in with the necessary funds to build that out.
Electric Autonomy: How do you see the future of the SRC facility? Will you eventually expand into other rare earth products?
Mike Crabtree: The fundamental piece is to catalyze the development of a hub here in Saskatchewan. To provide the expertise, the experience, the intellectual property. That’s point one. The future of this facility may well be to extend its capabilities into magnets. There’s significant interest in doing that. The long-term future of this plant — being a one-third commercial scale — allows us to look at ways of enhancing the value of 15 other products in addition to the NDPR and be able to develop technologies for optimizing those.
If we’re successful, I think the future of this plant will be in continuing to demonstrate and support the development of the hub, a sort of research through commercialization, looking at new technologies.
Editor’s Note: On July 11, an update was inserted in Mike Crabtree’s answer to the first question, correcting the reference to praseodymium oxides (due to a transcription error it previously read potassium oxides).