These are key elements for the development of the technology industry, and, according to experts, Chile could become a relevant player, provided the necessary investments are made.
It is a mining field dominated by China and scarcely explored in Chile, but in which it has great potential. These are the so-called “rare earths”, elements little known at the popular level, but key to the development of technologies.
Far from the gigantic operations in the desert for the extraction of copper, the main national export product and currently experiencing days of rejoicing with prices close to reaching historic highs, there is a deposit that seeks to go after Chilean rare earths and make the country to open a space in this market.
In the town of Penco, Biobío Region, the Biolantánidos project is being developed, which was purchased in 2019 by the Peruvian firm Hochschild from Minería Activa and which is in its last phase of environmental study.
But what are rare earths? These are 17 elements of the periodic table, belonging to the lanthanide family, which are characterized by having fundamental properties for the development of the technological industry, which is why they are used, among other things, to produce magnets that are later used in items such as cell phones, household appliances, computers, electric cars and wind power plants.
Regarding the main characteristics of these natural resources, Gustavo Lagos, professor in the Department of Mining Engineering at the Catholic University, explained to Emol that “these are elements that are scarce in the earth’s crust, even more than copper, and that have very important applications in small quantities. ”
For his part, Juan Carlos Guajardo, Executive Director of Plusmining, highlighted that by presenting themselves as “very unique mineral conglomerates”, their yields are quite specific, and are generally associated with the production of magnets for high-efficiency motors. This is due to its properties to increase the magnetism of the motors, reduce their size and extend their duration over time.
What’s more, according to El Mercurio, a conventional car has 150 grams of magnets, while an electric car has two kilos and a wind turbine can have up to 600 kilos of magnets, so predictions suggest that the consumption of magnets will increase. around 30% per year in the next ten years.
The Biolantánidos project, located in the town of Penco, is currently in its last stage of environmental study.
“We expect to go into production in early 2023, assuming that the environmental assessment process follows the average course of projects of this type,” said Rodrigo Ceballos, general manager of the project. And he added that “we are entering a second Addendum, with good technical progress, so we are very calm with the information we have provided.”
Furthermore, according to the executive, this type of mining differs quite a lot from the traditional one, in the sense that it treats the clay in a depth of up to 40 meters, which is processed. Subsequently, it is returned to the earth and the vegetation is replaced, avoiding the use of blasting, crushing or dangerous articles, and more than 95% of the water is reused.
On the other hand, according to the projections revealed through a study carried out by the Chilean Copper Commission (Cochilco), thanks to the disbursement of between US $ 60 million and US $ 70 million executed by the company, the estimated production of this deposit is around 1,700 tons per year, a figure that, in any case, is small in the context of the world market, where about 250 thousand tons are traded.
However, according to experts, our country has a comparative advantage, since it has heavy rare earths – this name is due to the high chemical numbers of the types of lanthanides that compose them – which almost do not exist outside of China, which has positioned itself as the world’s leading producer of rare earths by a big difference.
According to the Cochilco report, in 2019, the countries that stood out for containing the main reserves of these natural resources are China, whose extractions of rare earths exceeded 120 thousand tons in said period, followed by Australia, which registered 20 thousand tons, while that the United States added 15 thousand tons, and the figures were declining with regard to Burma, Russia, Thailand and Brazil.
Regarding Chile, the study stated that that same year there were at least two prospects under study, one called “Cerro Carmen, Sierra Áspera and Veracruz”, located in the Atacama region, which was investigated to establish its mining property, and develop metallurgical techniques in order to obtain a commercial concentrate of rare earth oxides by applying these hydrometallurgical methods.
In turn, iron oxide deposits were analyzed, which correspond to anomalous deposits of rare earth elements. However, to date, Chile has not advanced in the exploitation of more deposits of this type because it does not yet have a competitive technology for their processing, Cochilco said.
The main challenges
Currently, the rare earth segment in Chile is still under evaluation. This was stated by the biminister of Energy and Mining, Juan Carlos Jobet, who, in an interview with EmolTV, stated that “preliminary studies are being carried out in mining, but they are at a very early stage.”
Along these lines, he argued that “rare earths are components that come in the resources obtained in mining production and that have very specific objectives in industrial sectors, but that they will be essential in electromobility, then, in As the climate change agenda accelerates, as we move more towards renewable energy, the use of those lands should be more intense. ”
And he closed by stating that “then it is important that Chile, which has potential in this segment, exploits it and we plan it ahead of time.”
It is in this context that, although experts indicate that Chile could acquire a key role worldwide thanks to the exploitation of these resources, it is necessary to encourage the development of the industry through studies, in addition to enhancing the capacities to process the rare earths.
From Guajardo’s perspective, although Chile is a country that stands out for its mining potential, it is necessary to delve into the matter, since to date “there is not enough systematization or exploration of information, so the issue continues to be very limited “.
Along these lines, the executive director of Plusmining pointed out that “as there is no count or dimensioning of the rare earth potential in the country, one can make assumptions regarding the existence of these deposits, but not a quantification to be able to say that we really are in an expectant or favorable situation for this mineral “.
On the other hand, Lagos argued that, given today’s context, in which the computer, cell phone, and automobile industries require rare earths for their manufacture, which translates into significant sums of money, due to the prevalence that they present in world trade, “the challenge is precisely in obtaining the technologies to sell directly to consumers, which in this case are the factories of a lot of advanced technologies, so that they buy from us the components they need directly.”
The academic from the Catholic University expressed that the main problem is in processing, not in extracting. And in that sense, he closed by stating that “today Chile does not have the necessary technology, neither is the case of the United States or Australia, which are the countries that have the most potential to produce rare earths. Now, if this were differently, we wouldn’t have to worry about China. ”
Translated with Google Translator