The official press release about the “discovery” of Turkey is scanty with details. But Goodenough suspects it’s likely the well-known Kizilçaören deposit, located near the city of Eskişehir in northwestern Turkey. She and her colleagues visited this deposit five years ago and have discussed its potential for rare earth recovery in scientific papers. The mineral bastnaesite, which contains rare earth elements, has been identified at Kizilçaören in the past. “This deposit that we have written about is similar to some of the large producing deposits in China,” says Goodenough. “It has the potential to produce rare earths.”
And yet there could still be limiting factors, says David Merriman, research director for metals and mining at Wood MacKenzie, a market research firm. It depends on the proportion of certain rare earth elements in the deposit, he explains. If it turns out to be mostly lanthanum and cerium, for example, it could be a lot less valuable as there’s already a good supply of those particular elements.
If Turkey or any other country manages to increase production of rare earth-laden minerals, the question still remains of where they will be processed. China is also a world leader on this front, says Jon Hykawy, president and director of Stormcrow Capital, a consulting and research firm focused on rare metals.
There are several possible methods for separating rare earth minerals, but solvent extraction is the preferred approach in China, he explains. First, the ores are dissolved in acid and impurities are removed to produce a concentrated mixture of rare earth metals. This concentrate is then redissolved in an acid and combined with an organic liquid. The two liquids are agitated but separate again as they settle, and as they do so the rare earths move with the organic liquid in an order determined by the mass of each element. This allows them to be collected – although this step of combining and separating the acid and organic liquid may have to be repeated hundreds of times.
“It takes a long time, it’s not cheap, and it requires a significant understanding of the process itself,” says Hykawy. The process can take weeks.
The rare earth oxides obtained in this way are then partially processed into metals and finally cast in exactly the right way to produce magnets with the desired chemical and crystalline structures, for example.
China is excellent at doing all of this cheaply, Hykawy says. The problem for countries that want to get into processing rare earths is that companies want a stable, low price for these materials and newcomers have a very hard time competing with China on this point. Indeed, 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 it would rather require the rise of another processing force as dismantling to challenge China’s dominance in the sector.
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 hold on the market. Turkey’s announcement may not yet have hard facts to back it up, but its deposition remains one to watch, says Julie Klinger, a geographer at the University of Delaware. “As I interpret this event, some members of the government in Turkey have decided to prioritize this,” she explains. “It also seems to me an attempt to attract investment.”
Any new mining operation in the area, which is close to extensive agricultural land, should consider the potential environmental impact of mineral extraction, she adds. Chemical effluents from mines, for example, can contaminate nearby water supplies.
Concerns about such impacts often lead to serious local opposition to new mines. In Sweden, an iron and rare earths mine in the north of the country recently received government approval, despite years of outcry from environmentalists and indigenous peoples.
While mining is difficult to get right and there are upfront costs in trying to limit its impact on nature, the pressure to establish reliable supplies of rare earths outside of China remains. Turkey may not be able to do this alone, but the country could still play a role in rebalancing the global rare earth supply chain.
As Goodenough puts it, “People assume that rare earth elements are rare and China has them all — and that’s not true at all.”