The official press release about the Turkish “discovery” lacked details. But Goodenough believes it is likely the famous Kizilçaören deposit near the city of Eskisehir in northwestern Turkey. She and her colleagues visited the deposit five years ago and discussed its potential for rare earth mining in an academic paper. The rare earth element-containing mineral bastnaesite has been found in Kizilsalun in the past. “We’ve written about this deposit, which is similar to some of the large producing deposits in China,” Goodenough said. “It does have the potential to produce rare earths.”
But there may still be constraints, said David Merriman, director of metals and mining research at market research firm Wood MacKenzie. He explained that the proportion of specific rare earth elements in the deposit is important. For example, if it turned out to be mostly lanthanum and cerium, it could be worth a lot less because those specific elements are already in good supply.
If Turkey or any other country succeeds in scaling up mining of rare earth-rich minerals, it remains a question of where they will be processed. Jon Hykawy, president and director of Stormcrow Capital, a consulting and research firm specializing in rare metals, said China is also a world leader in this regard.
He explained that there are several possible ways to separate rare earth minerals, but solvent extraction is the preferred method in China. First, the ore is dissolved in acid and contaminants are removed to form a concentrated mixture of rare earth metals. The concentrate is then redissolved in acid and mixed with an organic fluid. The two liquids are agitated, but separate again as they settle, and as they do so, the rare earth moves with the organic fluid, in an order determined by the mass of each element. This allows them to be collected—though the steps of combining and separating acids and organic liquids may need to be repeated hundreds of times.
“It takes a long time, it’s not cheap, and it requires a deep understanding of the process itself,” Hykawy said. This operation may take several weeks to complete.
Rare earth oxides recovered from this laborious work are sometimes processed into metals and finally poured in the right way to create magnets with the desired chemical and crystal structure.
China excels at doing all of this cheaply, Hykawy said. The trouble for countries looking to enter rare earth processing is that companies want the materials to be stable and cheap, and newcomers find it hard to compete with China on this. In fact, there are other potential sources of rare earth elements besides China and Turkey – in Europe and Africa, as well as new rare earth operations currently underway in Canada and the US – but this requires the rise of another processing force, and Instead of mining, challenge China’s dominance in the industry.
Global demand for rare earth materials is expected to remain strong in the coming years, which is why so many observers are keen to challenge China’s grip on the market. Julie Klinger, a geographer at the University of Delaware, said Turkey’s claims may not be backed up by hard facts, but its deposits remain to be seen. “The way I explain this incident is that some members of the Turkish government decided to prioritize this,” she explained. “In my opinion, it’s also about attracting investment.”
She added that any new mining operations in the region close to large tracts of farmland should consider the potential impact of mineral extraction on the environment. For example, chemicals flowing from mines can contaminate nearby water supplies.
Concerns about the impact tend to spark local backlash against new mines. In Sweden, an iron and rare earth mine in the north of the country recently won government approval despite years of outcry from environmentalists and indigenous peoples.
While getting the right mining rights is difficult and involves upfront costs in trying to limit its impact on nature, pressure remains to establish a reliable supply of rare earths outside of China. Turkey may not actually be able to do this on its own, but the country still has a role to play in rebalancing the global rare earth supply chain.
As Goodenough put it: “People think rare earth elements are rare, and China has all of them — that’s simply not true.”