TORONTO (Reuters) - The value in rare earths is in separating oxides and selling the product, rather than in mining itself, Avalon Rare Metals said in defense of its $1 billion price tag for a mine and related plants.
Speaking to Reuters in an interview, Chief Executive Don Bubar said Avalon planned to produce separated rare earths by 2016. He noted the possibility of someone buying up the company, but said a buyer would probably want production capabilities lined up first.
“While someone might want to control the supply coming out of this by controlling the company, it doesn’t necessarily mean they want to become miners and processors,” he said.
Rare earths, a group of 17 metals, are used in a wide range of high-tech products, from Apple’s iPhone to the Toyota Prius.
China currently produces around 97 percent of the global supply, but it recently cut exports, sending prices of some oxides soaring more than 800 percent.
Speaking from Hong Kong late on Thursday, Bubar said the mining side in the rare earth business made up only about 10-15 percent of the final product value, and digging up ore was only the first step toward a product.
“It’s not a mining business,” he said. “It’s a sophisticated chemical processing business to produce specialty chemical products for clean technology and high technology.”
Toronto-listed Avalon is developing the Nechalacho mine in Canada’s Northwest Territories. It has no experience in rare earth separation, but recently completed a scoping study on building a C$346 million ($345 million) plant to separate and process rare earths into high-value oxides.
“It’s not easy. Different customers have different requirements,” said Bubar. “We’re trying to engage with customers now, so they can tell us exactly how they need it, and then we can design our plant to do that.”
The price tag for the mine and facilities to take the rare earths to a low-value concentrate is C$729 million, but the separation plant brings that price tag over C$1 billion.
Bubar said Avalon’s advantage was its heavy rare earths — used in things like permanent magnets and LCD screens — that mines with light deposits like Molycorp’s Mountain Pass will not be able to meet.
“There’s nobody else in the world that offers that potential to bring heavy rare earths to the market in a significant quantity by 2015. No one,” he said.
Nechalacho has over 20 million tonnes of reserve and Bubar said it is the most advanced rare earth project in Canada.
Neo Material Technologies, a Toronto-based company that has been separating rare earths for 17 years, has announced a heavy project in Brazil’s Amazon basin that has nearly three times more dysprosium than Nechalacho, a bit more terbium, but less neodymium — a light rare earth used in permanent magnets.
That project will cost about $100 million to develop, including building a separation facility in Brazil, just a tenth of Avalon’s C$1 billion plan.
So far, Avalon has raised about C$40 million, to fund a bankable feasibility study due by the third quarter of 2012.
Once that is done, Bubar plans to approach banks and investors about funding the project.
He said his main focus is to see the mine through to production, although a buyout might be an option.
He said a buyer would likely want people in place who know how to run a mine and a separation facility.
“If you’re in the business of making TVs, then you probably don’t want to be in the mining and processing business,” he said.
Avalon shares have risen as much as 155 percent since June. They were at C$3.61 on Friday on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
Reporting by Julie Gordon; editing by Janet Guttsman