Domination in rare earths not out of reach

November 03, 2023 | 09:00
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Vietnam could realise its goal of becoming a significant source of rare earths for the global market, if rules on extraction and refining are made more suitable.

At a colloquium on rare earth prospects on October 18, professor and academic Chau Van Minh, chairman of the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology (VAST), stated that annual rare earth transactions on the global market are just under $10 billion. Two factors limiting Vietnam’s rare earth mining and refining for domestic use and exports are the market and technology.

“We do not have the technology to exploit and process rare earths,” explained Minh. “Many nations continue to retain monopoly status and do not transfer mining and processing technology for rare earths. China is an example of a country that has publicly restricted the sharing of technology to conserve rare earth resources.”

China is restricting the export of numerous minerals comparable to rare earths for the production of semiconductors, and has required mining companies to register for export licences for graphite since October 20. Graphite is a vital mineral in the manufacture of electric vehicle batteries. Previously, in July, China made the same move with gallium and germanium, two essential minerals for semiconductor production.

Domination in rare earths not out of reach
Domination in rare earths not out of reach, photo Le Toan

Vietnam has been searching for and assessing reserves for the past four decades, but the results have been dismal. “Vietnam is still unable to deal with hydrometallurgical products and separately extract rare earth oxides,” said Do Nam Binh, metallurgical minerals director at the Agency of Industry under the Ministry of Industry and Trade (MoIT).

Until now, rare earth refining has been limited to the stage of processing fine ores with a 30 per cent concentration.

When China restricted the supply of rare earths to the global market, new corporations in the semiconductor industry arrived in Vietnam. After 2010, diplomatic missions by Japanese officials formed the basis for Vietnam’s decision to select Japan as a long-term cooperation partner for projects about researching, exploring, exploiting, and refining rare earths in Vietnam.

The Japan Organization for Metals and Energy Security and the Institute of Technology of Radioactive Rare (ITRRE) under the Ministry of Science and Technology of Vietnam built a rare earth research and technology transfer centre at the ITRRE. This initiative investigated the refining of rare earths from Dong Pao mine from 2011 to 2016.

South Korean representatives also travelled to Vietnam to foster new cooperative relationships regarding rare earths, albeit more slowly. President Yoon Suk Yeol and over 200 enterprises from the country visited Vietnam in June this year, and rare earth materials became one of the primary topics of conversation.

As a result, Vietnam and South Korea signed an MoU to build a supply chain centre for rare earths and other vital minerals in order to assure a steady supply for South Korean companies.

As a result of efforts to strengthen the legal framework, the Vietnamese government’s objective of Vietnam becoming a significant source of rare earths for the worldwide marketplace has got obvious. Deputy Prime Minister Tran Hong Ha in July approved planning for exploration, exploitation, processing, and use of minerals for the rest of the decade, with a view to 2050. The plan is to extract approximately two million tonnes of unprocessed ore per year from rare earth minerals alone.

Vietnam is entirely capable of participating in the global rare earth supply chain, given its current infrastructure, according to Assoc. Prof. Dr. Hoang Anh Son, deputy director of the Institute of Material Sciences at the VAST.

“However, this can only occur after the Vietnamese government pays special consideration to extensive processing and developing rare earth product lines that comply with export standards, and putting effort into technology to separate and clean rare earth oxides for research and production,” Son said. “In addition, it must also provide solutions to safeguard resources and the environment.”

According to 2023 data from the Ministry of Industry and Trade, the majority of Vietnam’s rare earth mines are located in the northwest provinces of Lao Cai, Yen Bai, and Lai Chau. According to statistics from the US Geological Survey in 2022, Vietnam’s rare earth reserves account for 18 per cent of the world’s total rare earth reserves, or approximately 22 million tonnes, just behind China’s 44 million tonnes and ahead of Brazil’s 21 million tonnes.

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