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Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs

Innovative New Hydrometallurgical Process for Nb & REE Valorization from Pyrochlore Ores

Objectives of the commitment

The valorization of pyrochlore ores is limited to niobium recovery through a pyrometallurgical route and is only applied to ores allowing an efficient ore dressing process. New pyrochlore ore deposits, especially in Gabon (Africa), contain very fine pyrochlore particles which cannot be efficiently enriched by ore dressing processes. Furthermore, other valuables elements present in the deposits are not valorized through existing conventional processes.
An alternative to these existing processes is to develop a safe and environmentally friendly hydrometallurgical process allowing to recover all the valuable elements (Nb, REE, but also Ta and U) from these complex and naturally radioactive pyrochlore ores. To do it in an economical and sustainable way, without using hydrofluoric acid, requires developing a completely new, innovative and complex metallurgical process. It is what the present project aims to achieve.

Description of the activities

The activities of the project are aiming at developing an innovative process allowing a complete valorization of elements contained in naturally radioactive pyrochlore ores in safe conditions, environmentally friendly and economically efficient. The process is developed to recover the metals contained in the Maboumié wolrdclass ore deposit located in Gabon. The products obtained will have to fulfill the customers’ needs. The processes allowing to transform the Nb/Ta and REE concentrates into saleable products have to be defined and optimized.

Working Package 1 (WP1): Characterization and geometallurgical modeling (leader: HZDR)
A critical aspect in determining the right process route for ore beneficiation but also for the early hydrometallurgical process steps is an advanced characterization of the ore, which is particularly difficult given the small particle size and mineralogical complexity of the REE and Nb bearing minerals. State of the art analytical and mineral characterization techniques with appropriate method development are key assets for developing such a complex process. Based on these analyses, and taking into account the high complexity of the ore, geometallurgical modeling will be applied in order to develop mathematical descriptions of the effects of beneficiation techniques in the mineralogical context of this deposit. The developed models are precise enough to quantitatively compare the reasonable processing sequences based on a computer model to select candidates for processing sequences optimal with respect to economic and ecological criteria. This is done based on fitting nonlinear regression models arising from data and work performed in the WP2 and 3.

WP2: Beneficiation (leader: GTK)
The recovery of niobium, REE and other valuable elements from fine altered carbonatite ore deposits is very challenging. The separation of the gangue minerals prior to the hydrometallurgical treatment is needed to reduce the size and the cost of the treatment and is mandatory to develop a viable economical process.
Conventional technologies to beneficiate the ores cannot be applied because of the amount of ultrafines in the ore and the complexity of the mineralogy. Furthermore some impurities contained in the ore are detrimental to the performance of the hydrometallurgical process. Amongst impurities, some elements could impact negatively the recovery of valuable elements even at low concentration. GTK has a large experience in ore beneficiation technologies and is operating innovative type of equipment based on magnetic separation. Applying Wet High Intensity Magnetic Separation technologies to ultrafine carbonatite ore, and optimizing it taking into accound specific constraints of WP3, would be a large innovation compared to current processes and could be the key to develop a competitive process to valorize these deposits.

WP3: Hydrometallurgy (leader: ERAMET)
This WP aims at achieving a complete dissolution (except silica compounds) of the ore in sulphidic medium followed by a quantitative precipitation of niobium-tantalum concentrate and a selective precipitation of rare earths elements present in the pregnant liquid solution as a concentrate.
The planned tasks will include all the steps necessary to increase the chemical knowledge in sulphate medium for rare earths (conventionally purified in nitric or hydrochlorhydric media) and of niobium and tantalum, that have never been studied in sulphidic medium, even by scientists and to use these data to optimize the industrial process (high recovery yields, safe and environmentally effective operating conditions).
This WP includes up-scaling the process at pilot scale in order to provide partners (WP4) with enough concentrates to develop the end of the process.

WP4: Purification of each of the REE concentrates (leader: SOLVAY)
The hydro-process (WP3) is delivering REE impure concentrates in sulphate medium. The proposed WP4 research project aims at investigating technical options to economically produce rare earth products meeting customer specifications. A detailed plan of research studies will be established in close collaboration with the different routes accessible in WP3.

Description of the expected impacts

A successful project will offer a long term supply of heavy REE and Nb and a sustainable alternative to current oligopolies in these metals supply.
Development work will be performed based on the Mabounié lateritic ore deposit located in Gabon, Africa, featuring world-class resources of Nb and REE in particular.

As resource efficiency is an integral part of the project, a successful project will allow REE production, but also Nb, Ta and U production: metals of great importance for the development of green and high-end technology and energy industries.

To achieve these ambitious goals, long term job creation and competencies development in metallurgy are required at R&D and technology development level on the one hand, and at production level for plants operation on the other hand. Significant investments (hundreds of millions of euros) will result from a successful project, some at the mine site and others in locations to be determined.

Finally, this project will contribute to strengthen the position of European metallurgy and high technology sectors by improving access to strategic resources.

Coordinating organisation & role

Name of the coordinating organisation: ERAMETCountry: FranceEntity profile: Private sector - large companyRole within the commitment:

ERAMET main activity in the project will consist of developing a sustainable and economical hydrometallurgy recovery process adapted to fine pyrochlores orebody that matches end-user product qualification.
ERAMET will coordinate the research work of the different partners in order to reach the objectives and will operate at pilot scale in order to provide partners with intermediate products as well as to qualify its process innovation.

Other partners

Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Angewandten Forschung e.V.

Name of the organisation: Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Angewandten Forschung e.V. Country: Germany Entity profile: Governmental/public body
Role within the commitment: Fraunhofer will lead the CFRP and GFRP recycling research.
Fraunhofer will perform corrosion tests on the developed materials.
Fraunhofer will work with CIDAUT on the implementation, validation and refinement of LCCA tools for the project. Fraunhofer is the Quality Manager of the Consortium and will oversee deliverables and general reporting are produced with the best possible quality following agreed review standards.

Fundacion Cidaut

Name of the organisation: Fundacion Cidaut Country: Spain Entity profile:
Role within the commitment: CIDAUT will lead the research activities on materials recycling and compounding, implementing lab scale demonstrators of each process at its premises and, later, supporting end-users upscale the processes.
CIDAUT will perform mechanical tests, microstructural analyses, injection moulding capability studies on the developed materails, and will work with Fraunhofer on the implementation, validation and refinement of LCCA tools for the project.

RWTH Aachen University (Institute of plastic processing (IKV)

Name of the organisation: RWTH Aachen University (Institute of plastic processing (IKV) Country: Germany Entity profile: Governmental/public body
Role within the commitment: RWTH will implement the novel 3D Generative Preforming process (3D Fibre Spraying) that enables to create high-value long fibre-reinforced 3D preforms for thermoplastic and thermoset composites at low process costs (different kinds of yarn as a raw material, low tooling costs due to low cavity pressures). This cost effective technology allows to align the sprayed fibres in order to produce high-performance, engineered anisotropic products.

Universita' di Cagliari

Name of the organisation: Universita' di Cagliari Country: Italy Entity profile:
Role within the commitment: University of Cagliari is one of the leading European organization in the resin design and coupling with thermoplastic and thermose materials. University of Cagliari will support in the definition of the composite materials, both from CFRP/GFRP, ABS and Rare Earth composite material.


Name of the organisation: Relight Country: Italy Entity profile: Private sector - SME
Role within the commitment: RELIGHT will work with ITRB to provide the research partners with residues for the recycled ABS supply and the REE recovery processes, including their HydroWEEE process as part of the processes to be studied and analyzed.

Piaggio Aerospace

Name of the organisation: Piaggio Aerospace Country: Italy Entity profile: Private sector - large company
Role within the commitment: Piaggio Aerospace is one of the project End Users (Aeronautics Industry): as such it will provide requirements and further applications that could be developed with the Consortium Materials. Piaggio will assist in the compounds selection, provide Fraunhofer with specific corrosion requirements on business jet size aircraft, and will assess that the developed materials performance fits the selected applications desired improvements.

Blackshape Aircrafts

Name of the organisation: Blackshape Aircrafts Country: Italy Entity profile: Private sector - SME
Role within the commitment: Blackshape Aircrafts is one of the project End Users (Aeronautics Industry): as such it will provide requirements and further applications that could be developed with the Consortium Materials. Blackshape will support to fulfill the requirements of the aeronautics industry on ultra light jet, light jet and trainer for Syllabus, and will assess that the developed alloys performance fits the selected applications desired improvements.

KU Leuven

Name of the organisation: KU Leuven Country: Belgium Entity profile: Academia
Role within the commitment: KUL will collaborate on the balance problem studies and will lead the rare earth recovery research with the solvometallurgical and ionometallurgical processes.
KUL will also contribute to the final compounding selection.
KUL is the Dissemination Manager of the project, promoting that all partners are active on the project Dissemination.


Name of the organisation: FIDAMC Country: Spain Entity profile: Governmental/public body
Role within the commitment: FIDAMC is going to lead the Work Package on Compression Moulding with CFRP-enhanced materials. As part of the AIRBUS Group, FIDAMC will also be able to provide the input material.
FIDAMC successfully developed a 3D Printer of own design to serve the Aerospace Industry and will be supporting Smart Lab 3D Industries in its 3D printer design.


Name of the organisation: COMPOSITE INNOVATION CENTER Country: Canada Entity profile: Governmental/public body
Role within the commitment: Composite Innovation Center is one of the world leading organization in the field of Composite materials, both from carbon fiber and vegetal-based fibers.
Composite Innovation center has successfully implemented, at lab-scale, recycling processes for CFRP and GFRP.

Existing EU Contribution: No

Period to implement the commitment: from 01-01-2015 to 31-12-2018