China raises US rare earth imports in 2020

  • Market: Metals
  • 22/01/21

China's imports of rare earth metal ores from the US rose by 54pc from a year earlier in 2020 to the highest level since China resumed buying from the country in 2018, Chinese customs data show. The sharp increase was largely because of stronger demand from the downstream magnet sector following government stimulus measures.

China imported 71,407t of rare earth metal ores from the US last year, up from 46,149t in 2019 and higher by 159pc from 27,567t in 2018. Average import prices rose by 26pc from 2019 to $1,648/t last year.

Chinese imports from the US began to rebound in September following an 80pc month-on-month slump to 1,501t in August. The August shipments were the lowest since 1,462t in March 2019.

China imported 7,371t of US rare earth metal ores in December, up by 51pc from 4,866t a year earlier, with average import prices rising by 59pc to $2,172/t over the period.

Almost all of the imports were taken by Chinese rare earth separation producer Shenghe Resources. The firm restarted operations at its Leshan separation plant in late October, after a halt in mid-August because of floods.

A rapid recovery in the magnet manufacturing industry following the lifting of Covid-19 lockdown measures in the second half of last year has boosted demand for light rare earth products and fuelled consumption of imported rare earth ores.

China's combined imports of rare earth oxide (HS code 28469019), carbonate ores (HS code 28469048) and compounds of rare earth metals (HS code 28469099) rose by 15pc from a year earlier to 40,732t last year, with the average import price up by 66pc to $11,261/t.

Imports from Myanmar (Burma), including shipments under the same three HS codes, rose by 23pc to 35,539t in 2020, with average import prices up by 115pc to $10,933/t. Supplies from Myanmar fell by 20pc on the year to 2,850t in December, while average import prices more than doubled to $14,052/t.

China imported 6,225t of rare earth carbonate ores (HS code 28469048) from Myanmar last year, down by 52pc from 13,079t a year earlier. Imports from Myanmar in December fell by 92pc on the year to 173t.

Chinese imports of rare earth oxide ores (HS code 28469019) from Myanmar rose by 21pc from a year earlier to 17,512t in 2020, and increased by 22pc to 1,567t in December.

The country's imports of compounds of rare earth metals (HS code 28469099) from Myanmar rose by more than eight times from a year earlier to 11,801t in 2020, while December deliveries increased sixfold from 149t a year earlier to 1,110t.

The rise in China's 2020 imports from Myanmar came in response to firmer demand for medium and heavy rare earth products from the magnet industry.

China's RE imports from US, Myanmart
Dec-20Average price($/t)Jan-Dec 2020Average price($/t)
RE oxide from Myanmar1,56721,15019,40918,877
RE carbonate from Myanmar1734,3548,7143,270
Compounds of RE metals from Myanmar1,1105,54312,6095,061
Imports from US7,3712,17271,4061,648
Total10,2215,484112,1384,514

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White Mesa has been processing monazite supplied by US titanium dioxide producer Chemours. But its output has been limited as there is not enough monazite in the feed, Chalmers said, whereas Toliara contains more than 1mn t of monazite and has about 1.5mn t of existing tailings capacity. Energy Fuels is in the process of commissioning its Phase 1 neodymium-praseodymium (NdPr) separation facility, which is scheduled to start production by the end of the first half of 2024. It plans to produce 35t of NdPr oxalate in 2024. Phase 1 will have the capacity to process 8,000-10,000 t/yr of monazite to produce up to 800-1,000 t/yr of NdPr oxide. The company plans to increase its NdPr capacity to 3,000 t/yr in 2026-27 and add heavy RE processing in 2027-28. It is starting to pilot heavy RE separation and is exploring moving downstream into metal and alloy production. The first stage of Base's Toliara project, scheduled for September 2027, aims to produce an average of 17,400 t/yr of monazite. The second stage would ramp up to 26,100 t/yr. Energy Fuels also owns the Bahia project in Brazil, which could supply 4,000-5,000 t/yr of monazite to White Mesa Mill to produce 400-500 t/yr of NdPr oxide and 20-25 t/yr of dysprosium and terbium oxides. Energy Fuels has the potential to produce 4,000-6,000 t/yr of NdPr oxide, 150-225 t/yr of dysprosium oxide and 50-75 t/yr of terbium oxide, which would supply enough magnetic RE oxides to supply 3mn-6mn electric vehicles (EVs) per year. RE oxides are in demand from US, European and Asian EV, wind energy and other clean energy manufacturers, as well as emerging commercial metal-making, alloying and magnet-making facilities that are under development in the US. The US defence industry could include offtake of other non-magnetic oxides contained in monazite. Developments at other mineral sands producers outside China also indicate that demand for concentrate for its monazite content rather than zircon or titanium is on the rise. 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Companies had stopped processing monazite owing to the high cost of disposing radioactive thorium. But thorium is now becoming attractive for advanced nuclear reactor design and medical isotopes, which could drive offtake. By Nicole Willing Send comments and request more information at feedback@argusmedia.com Copyright © 2024. Argus Media group . All rights reserved.

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