Diversified major Rio Tinto will become the first producer of high-quality scandium oxide in North America, with construction of a new commercial-scale demonstration plant under way at its Rio Tinto Fer et Titane (RTFT) metallurgical complex in Sorel-Tracy, Quebec.
As reported by Mining Weekly Online in January, the major noted that RTFT is expected to begin commercial supply of scandium oxide in the second quarter of 2021. Further, it stated that it is well positioned to produce aluminium-scandium alloys to meet customers’ needs.
Rio Tinto is investing $6-million for the construction of a first module in the plant, with an initial capacity to produce 3 t/y of scandium oxide, or about 20% of the current global market. The Quebec government is contributing about $650 000 to the project through the Quebec Plan for the Development of Critical and Strategic Minerals. The new plant will have the ability to add further modules, in line with market demand.
RTFT developed an innovative process, proven at pilot scale, to extract high-purity scandium oxide from the waste streams of titanium dioxide production, without the need for any additional mining at its ilmenite mine in Havre-Saint-Pierre, Quebec.
Further, scandium oxide is used to improve the performance of solid oxide fuel cells, which are used as a power source for data centres and hospitals, as well as in niche products such as lasers and lighting for stadiums or studios. It is also used to produce high-performance aluminium-scandium master alloys for the aerospace, defence and three-dimensional printing industries.
The company is proud to offer North America’s first reliable supply of scandium oxide using an innovative and sustainable process, with the construction of this new plant, says Rio Tinto iron and titanium MD Stéphane Leblanc.
Leblanc notes that Rio Tinto has been engaged in the exploration for and production of rare earths and critical minerals globally for several years, to meet the demand in new and emerging technologies. Additionally, with the support of Rio Tinto’s aluminium business, the company is uniquely positioned to deliver aluminium-scandium master alloys and develop synergies with North America’s manufacturing supply chain.
Moreover, Quebec Energy and Natural Resources Minister Jonatan Julien states that RTFT’s scandium oxide valorisation project is a concrete example of how value can be extracted from mining wastes, adding that, “it demonstrates our ability to innovate and seize business opportunities in a growing market as we strive to ensure secure supplies of critical minerals. “This business has the potential to become a major scandium supplier outside China”.
Quebec Economy and Innovation Minister Pierre Fitzgibbon highlights that the step taken last month by RTFT has the potential to position Quebec as a world leader in the extraction and commercialisation of scandium.
“With this project, Quebec will become the largest producer of this rare metal, which will have a major impact on our exports and Quebec’s supply chains, particularly in key sectors such as the electrification of transportation and aerospace. I commend the entire RTFT team for this project, which combines innovation and responsible use of our resources,” he states.
Both the high-quality scandium oxide and aluminium-scandium master alloy will be commercialised under the business brand name Element North 21.