Rio Tinto to open North America’s first scandium plant in June

Scandium oxide powder and a scandium aluminum alloy produced by Rio Tinto's titanium dioxide facility in Quebec.Scandium oxide powder and a scandium aluminum alloy produced by Rio Tinto's dioxide facility in Quebec. Credit: Rio Tinto

Rio Tinto (NYSE: RIO; LSE: RIO) and the Quebec government have announced the development of the first scandium oxide plant in North America. The commercial-scale demonstration plant, which is already under construction, will cost about US$6 million ($9 million) and have the capacity to produce 3 tonnes per year. Considering the current size of the market, estimated at around 20 tonnes per year, the production will be significant for Rio Tinto and Quebec.

“With the first production unit, Rio Tinto will become the leading producer of high-purity scandium oxide in North America,” said Stephane Leblanc, Rio Tinto Iron and Titanium’s managing director, in a virtual press conference on Jan. 14.

The modular plant is expected to begin production by the end of June. Leblanc noted that it can be scaled up to meet demand and estimates that production could be increased to reach over 12 t/y annually.

As part of a push by Quebec to support the production of critical minerals as well as specialized refined products for the technology sector, the province will contribute a total of $850,000 to the project — $500,000 from the Ministry of Energy and Mines and $350,000 from the Ministry of Economy and Innovation. Quebec launched its $68-million Plan for the Development of Critical and Strategic Minerals Development in October.

Scandium is one of 22 critical and strategic minerals identified by the province in the plan.

“The scandium oxide recovery project is an inspiring example of how our tailings can be developed, it’s a testament to our ability to seize opportunities in a growing market and it is a testament to the role that Quebec can play in the field of super alloys and (critical and strategic minerals).” said Jonatan Julien, Quebec’s Minister of Energy and Natural Resources at the news conference.

There are currently two major markets for scandium oxide – to produce high-performance aluminum alloys for the aerospace, defence and 3-D printing industries, and in the production of solid oxide fuel cells. However, the uses of scandium are much wider and are growing. In an optimistic scenario, the Boston Consulting Group estimates demand could reach 650 tonnes annually by 2028.

A very low addition of 0.1 to 0.2% of scandium in aluminum increases its mechanical properties, heat and corrosion resistance, and welding properties.

Rio Tinto discovered scandium oxide in the ore at its Lac Tio open pit mine in Havre-Saint-Pierre, Que., five years ago.

After starting with lab testing in 2015 and moving to a pilot plant in 2017, the company developed a process to produce high-purity scandium oxide with a purity of over 99.99% from waste generated during the processing of titanium dioxide in 2019. Last year it produced an aluminum-scandium master alloy.

Since the scandium is extracted from waste and no additional mining is required to produce it, its production has a small environmental footprint.

Rio Tinto has created an agile structure called Element North 21 to advance the technology. 

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