The use of rare earth elements (REE) continues to power new and upcoming technologies. The utilisation of neodymium and praseodymium, particularly within the manufacturing of electric vehicles, generators and mobile technologies, for example, has been long-standing. Nonetheless, it has been noted that the REE market is set to rise at an annual growth rate of 8.5% from 2016 to 2026, providing significant opportunities for the mining sector.
Established back in 2011, Rainbow Rare Earths has been behind the development of the high-grade Gakara Rare Earth Project in Burundi, with the ambition to become one of the leading rare earth producers outside of China. At present, China is the leader in the production of rare earths, with Lynas Corp as the only major non-Chinese supplier of the material, until now.
“Every electric vehicle on average will begin to have twice as much rare earth content by weight than a traditional vehicle,” explains Rainbow Rare Earths CEO Martin Eales.
“As the world increasingly switches to using electric vehicles, there will be more demand for rare earth materials. The minerals are also used in wind turbines, as well as consumer and tech products, such as smartphones and computers.”
The Gakara Rare Earths Project
Situated in East Africa, Burundi has a long mining history. The discovery of rare earth mineralisation back in the 1930s led to the mining of ore from the 1950s up to the 1970s, albeit in much lower quantities than Rainbow is now undertaking. “The rare earth magnet was invented in the 1980s, so you can imagine global demand was very different back then,” notes Eales.
After commencing exploration work on the deposit in 2011, Rainbow obtained its 25-year mining licence in 2015. Following its listing on the London Stock Exchange in January 2017, the company achieved its stated target of first production and first export shipment of high grade rare earths mineral concentrate at the end of last year. Rainbow’s short-term aim is to produce at a rate of 5,000 tonnes per annum (tpa) before the end of 2018, rising to 6,000tpa before the end of 2019.
Rainbow’s Gakara project is widely recognised as one of the highest-grade REE mining projects worldwide, with an in-situ grade of up to 67% rare earth oxides.
Working closely with the environmental ministry in Burundi has enabled Rainbow to reduce any potential impact on the surrounding areas to its operations.
“It's open quarry digging, effectively. Other than tons of soil being relocated, we're not doing anything else which may affect the environment,” says Eales. “We use no acids or explosives, which could pollute the environment.
“It’s such a high grade that the volumes we have to mine are consequently very low,” he continues. “Our processing from the mined ore is also not overly technical because it relies on gravity separation.
“It's heavier than the waste so it's relatively easy to extract the rare earth ore. It's separated using gravity, so the lighter material gets thrown off and the heavier material gets concentrated.”
Strong existing infrastructural links such as the roads to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Mombasa, Kenya, support Rainbow’s operations by enabling mineral concentrate to be trucked to port. Its processing plant, situated 20km away from its core mining locations in Kabezi, will enable Rainbow to process of up to five tons of run of mine ore per hour.
Rainbow’s implementation of low-risk, low capex mining and processing has therefore increased the speed to first production and will support future sales, with the high grade eradicating the need for further chemical processing. A signed 10-year agreement with thyssenkrupp Raw Materials covers Rainbow’s ongoing distribution and marketing, and will see the business sell up to 10,000tpa of rare earth concentrate worldwide. All marketing and price negotiations will be undertaken by thyssenkrupp.
“We also like to support the growth of the economy in Burundi and enable what is currently a small developing country gain access to the foreign currency that the mining sector can provide,” says Eales.
Adopting a robust corporate social responsibility programme, Rainbow is developing an allocated fund dedicated to community developments and local programmes. Examples of community projects already supported by Rainbow include the supply of essential building materials to local people, as well as establishing a catering cooperative, which provides food for local workers.
Most importantly for both the company and Burundi, Rainbow guarantees that non-local hires are kept to a minimum. Currently employing well over 100 local staff, the business provides many local opportunities, and is contributing to the improvement of local infrastructure in order to educate, uplift and empower local citizens.
“We hire local, if possible, and we do that hand-in-hand with the local administration to ensure that the local residents are first in line for employment, rather than coming from elsewhere in the country,” comments Eales.
“We have only two full-time expat staff in country, one of whom is a very experienced South African Health and Safety Manager. He has implemented a range of standard operating procedures and health and safety monitoring. We’ve trained all our workers to the fullest extent, and provide everything required to ensure workers are as safe as possible throughout all our operations.”
Whilst Rainbow now looks to ramp up its production, it has sought to mitigate any potential short term financial risks by completing a further equity issue in early December 2017. “We've just done a fundraising of nearly $4mn,” adds Eales. The Company’s recent fundraising opens up the door for further acceleration of growth.
The funds will enable Rainbow to expand its existing mining fleet to increase production, and will see the company look at other areas of exploration potential, with approximately $750,000 put aside for a maiden drilling campaign, alongside $1mn which will be put towards the establishment costs of new mining areas.
“It’s quite an exciting time and will support the increase of production through 2018 and into 2019. We’re also set to undertake our first drilling campaign on some very exciting anomalies highlighted by our recent airborne survey,” concludes Eales.
“We see many, many years of operations in the area. Hopefully we'll leave a good legacy, something that's sustainable for the local people.”