The research and innovation project SecREEts, a partnership between with the Norwegian companies Yara and REEtec, and the research institute SINTEF, has been granted EUR 12.5 million in support from the EU Horizon 2020 program. The goal is to ensure a sustainable, stable and safe extraction and processing of rare earth elements in Europe.

The phosphate that Yara uses as a raw material in fertilizer production contains rare earth elements. The goal of this project is to extract these elements, which are necessary components in the production of many high-tech products, such as mobile phones, computer hard drives, electric vehicles and wind turbines.

Creating value with unused resource

The rare earth elements in the phosphate rock used by Yara now ends up in the fertilizer. The elements with names like cerium, thulium and lutetium are not harmful in any way, but have no function as crop nutrition either. The plan is to extract the rare earth elements during the fertilizer production process at Yara Porsgrunn. REEtec has developed a new, ground breaking technology for separation of rare earth elements, and plans to build a demo facility, virtually next to Yara's production plant.

The entire project is managed by SINTEF, a leading Norwegian competence center on metal science in Europe. Europe currently relies on import of rare earth elements, and Yara and REEtec will become the only European producers of these sought-after materials.

“This project is about creating value by utilizing an unused resource. Our production uses about 650,000 tonnes of phosphate rock annually, containing about 0.3 -1.0 percent of rare earth elements which are not extracted today,” says Kari-Anne Leth-Olsen, Head of P/NPK Technology at Yara Technology Center in Porsgrunn.

"We have researched how to exploit this resource since 2011. In collaboration with REEtec we can now establish an integrated production where Yara concentrates the rare earth species, and REEtec separates them into high purity. This is an example of circular economy which contributes to optimal resource utilization to the benefit of the environment,” says Tom Jørgensen, Principal Engineer in the P/NPK Technology department.

Market dominated by China

The market for these rare earth elements, which is essential in the production of electronics and many climate-friendly technologies, is completely dominated by China and Chinese players. Access to these commodities is important for European high-tech industry. The EU therefore has a clear ambition to reduce the dependence on China in this area, by establishing a supply chain based on European raw materials and European manufacturers.

REEtec uses its newly developed separation technology to separate the rare earth elements into high purity. REEtec has operated a pilot plant in Porsgrunn for a few years. The company has now decided to establish an industrial scale demonstration plant, which will be ready for production during the course of 2018.

"In addition to being an environmentally friendly and efficient utilization of an untapped resource, it is also very promising to be part of a competitive and technologically advanced European value chain for rare earth elements," says Sigve Sporstøl, Chief Executive Officer of REEtec.

Critical raw material for Europe

Horizon 2020 is the world's largest research and innovation program, with about EUR 80 billion available in the 2014-2020 program period. The process to apply for these European grants are both demanding and labor-intensive. In this particular application process, there were 49 participants and only four came through the two application rounds.

Throughout the project, SINTEF will support the development of processes and routines at Yara and REEtec. In addition, the research institute will strengthen its own expertise in the extraction of rare earth elements.

"Rare earth elements are critical raw materials of significant value for the European high tech industry. When we now with great satisfaction received support under Horizon 2020 for this project, it is also a recognition of the leading Norwegian competence in this field,” says Eli Aamot, Executive Vice President, SINTEF.