Norway to supply rare earth elements

A consortium of companies and researchers have received EU funding for the project

Yara International

Photo: Gisle Nomme / Yara International (
The pilot plant for extraction of rare earth elements from fertilizer phosphate will be at Yara’s Herøya facility.

Claude Olsen
Research Council of Norway

A Norwegian industry consortium has secured European Union (EU) funding to become Europe’s new major supplier of rare earth elements.

Together, Norwegian chemical company Yara, technology company REEtec, and research institute SINTEF saw an enormous opportunity to help to resolve one of the greatest societal challenges facing Europe, namely the supply of critical raw materials.

“There are no primary sources of rare earth elements in Europe today. In this project, we will start producing considerable quantities of rare earth elements based on a secondary flow from the phosphate-based fertilizer production at Herøya,” says Stian Nygaard, Yara International’s head of innovation partnerships & funding.

Rare earth elements are used in many technological products, including mobile phones, electric cars, wind turbines, and medical equipment. The market is dominated by China, which can control prices based on what best serves the interests of the country’s own industry and even limit the supply. The EU now wants to become more self-sufficient.

From exploring to full activity
Nygaard came from SINTEF in January 2018 with long experience from the industry network Sustainable Process Industry through Resource and Energy Efficiency (SPIRE) and the reference group for Societal Challenge 5: Climate Action, Environment, Resource Efficiency and Raw Materials, in the EU project Horizon 2020. SINTEF has received financial support from the Research Council of Norway for its participation in SPIRE.

The SecREEts project, as this joint venture is called, started with people talking together. In a meeting with Herøya Industrial Park in spring 2016, SINTEF presented the possibilities for EU funding for industrial projects and received input on project ideas at Herøya. On returning to Oslo, SINTEF reviewed the Horizon 2020 calls for proposals and found some that were relevant.

Yara, REEtec, Herøya Industrial Park, and SINTEF found one of the calls for proposals so interesting that they decided to submit a step 1 application. The consortium received a positive reply in June 2017 and started preparing a full step 2 application, which was submitted in September 2017. Before Christmas, they were informed that the application had been successful.

The consortium will receive EUR 12.8 million (NOK 120 million or $15.7 million), for a four-year project that aims to extract rare earth elements from phosphate in industrial-scale fertilizer production.

The success factors
The participation in SPIRE has brought major projects to SINTEF in the past, some in cooperation with Yara and Elkem.

Senior Research Scientist Arne Petter Ratvik in SINTEF, who is the coordinator for SecREEts, says that the most important thing in such projects is to have the right partners.

“There is no doubt that Stian’s expertise on the technical aspects of the application process and his national and international network has been of great importance in producing a good application. I am a beginner in this context, and Stian played a very important role in getting us where we are today,” he says.

rare earth oxides

Photo: Public Domain
A few rare earth oxides, clockwise from top center: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium, and gadolinium.

Big plans
As part of the project, Yara will run a big pilot project that will provide knowledge required to build a full-scale processing plant, while REEtec will build a full-scale demonstration module. At full capacity, several modules will be connected to deal with all of Yara’s production.

“The genius of this production process is that Yara only needs to add one extra stage in the process to extract the rare earth elements. The concentrate resulting from the fertilizer production contains a mixture of many rare earth elements. The different rare earth elements will be separated in REEtec’s processing plant,” says Ratvik.

About the project
The partners in the research and innovation project SecREEts aim to develop and verify a sustainable, stable, and safe production process for rare earth elements (lanthanides) from phosphate minerals used by Yara in its fertilizer production. Such elements are essential to many technological products such as mobile phones, hard disks, electric cars, and wind turbines.

Some of the phosphate rock used in the fertilizer production comes from Finland, where Yara owns a mine, and some comes from other parts of the world. On average, the phosphate rock contains between 0.3 and 1 percent rare earth elements. In full production, Yara expects to extract 3,000 tonnes of rare earth elements per year. The partner REEtec will separate the rare earth elements in a pilot plant next door to the fertilizer plant.

SINTEF is leading the project. The main Norwegian partners are Yara and REEtec, and the foreign partners are the British company Less Common Metals and the German company Vacuumschmelze. EU has granted funding in the amount of EUR 12.8 million, and the project period is from 2018 to 2022. The project aims to enable full-scale industrial production from 2023.

This article originally appeared in the April 20, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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