The official press release whether Turkey’s “discovery” is sparse in detail. But Goodenough suggests that it is probably the well-known Kizilçaören deposit, located near the town of Eskişehir in northwestern Turkey. She and colleagues visited this deposit five years ago and have discussed its potential for rare earth extraction in academic articles. The mineral bastnäsite, which contains rare earth elements, has been identified by Kizilçaören previously. “This deposit we’ve written about, it looks like some of the big producing deposits in China,” Goodenough says. “It has the potential to produce rare earths.”
And yet, there may still be limiting factors, says David Merriman, research director for metals and mining at Wood MacKenzie, a market research firm. The proportion of specific rare earth elements in the deposit is significant, he explains. If it turns out to be mainly lanthanum and cerium, for example, it may be much less valuable because there is already a good supply of these particular elements.
If Turkey, or any other country, succeeds in increasing the extraction of rare earth minerals, there is still the question of where they will be processed. China is also leading the world on this front, says Jon Hykawy, president and CEO of Stormcrow Capital, a consulting and research firm that focuses on rare metals.
There are several possible methods for separating rare earth minerals, but solvent extraction is the best approach in China, he explains. First, the ores dissolve in acid and contaminants are removed to create 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 stirred but separated again as they precipitate, and as they do, 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 the organic liquid may need 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 operation can take weeks to complete.
The rare earth oxides recovered from this painstaking endeavor are then sometimes processed into metals and eventually poured in just the right way to create, for example, magnets with the desired chemical and crystal structures.
China excels at making all this cheap, Hykawy says. The problem for countries that want to get into the processing of 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. 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 that are currently underway in Canada and USA– but it would require the emergence of a different force in processing, rather than extraction, to challenge China’s dominance in the sector.
Global demand for rare earth materials expected to remain strong in the coming years, which is why so many observers are keen to challenge China’s grip on the market. Turkey’s announcement may not yet be backed up by hard facts, but its contribution is still one to be seen, says Julie Klinger, a geographer at the University of Delaware. “The way I interpret this event is that some members of the Turkish government have decided to prioritize this,” she explains. “It also seems to me to be a bid to attract investment.”