A Beatrice startup with aspirations to make Beatrice the site of a large-scale plant to extract rare earth elements from mining waste is continuing to raise funds for the project and hopes to build the plant in 2016.
Rare Earth Salts announced plans for a pilot program last November. Since then, the company has opened a laboratory in the Beatrice Business Campus and has slowly increased the scale of its process.
CEO and Chief Technology Officer Joseph Brewer said just in the last year, technological advances have allowed the company to significantly improve its process.
“We’re beginning our scaled process, testing on our first large-scale cell using our proprietary technology,” Brewer explained. “The scaling exercises so far have proved very positive. We’re hoping within weeks we’ll have the first data coming off our technology as we’ve scaled it.”
While the process has improved, Rare Earth Salts’ objective hasn’t changed much.
The company still hopes to establish a Beatrice-based plant utilizing new technology Brewer said will allow the company to take would-be mining waste concentrate from all over the world – essentially a fine dirt – and extract small percentages of rare earth elements.
What scientists call the rare earths, a group of 17 elements on the periodic table, are readily found in the earth’s crust, similar to copper or cobalt. They are not easily separated, however, leading to the name.
Once removed, the elements are used largely in electronics, such as cell phone screens.
Rare Earth Salts was formed October 2012, in Minot, North Dakota, Brewer’s hometown. He now lives in Beatrice with his wife, Kayla, and three children.
The company includes the Brewers, two other Beatrice workers, one employee in Lincoln and Cameron Davies, Chief Operating Officer, who lives in Toronto.
It was previously stated that launching the pilot program, a smaller-scale plant to demonstrate the feasibility of the process, would take just shy of $10 million.
Davies said funding has been a major challenge, but is confident the plant will be operational in 2016.
“We are engaged in advanced discussions with a number of investors and are confident that we will have sufficient capital in place to meet our objectives in 2016,” he said. “It’s something we’ve been working really hard on, but it goes without saying it has been our biggest challenge.”
Brewer declined to say how close Rare Earth Salts is to funding the plant, but stressed nobody with the company expected the process to be a quick one.
“This type of stuff takes years,” he said. “We’re working with mining companies whose projects take three to five years to get off the ground. We’re trying to position ourselves for the long haul and make sure that we’re comfortable and can be around for the long term.
“As much as we would like things to go faster, the fact is that it’s going to take time.”
In the meantime, the company is working on side projects. One example has been a process to recycle elements in light bulbs.
“That is a very large-potential project for us to get going on and we like that as an option,” Brewer said. “There’s kind of a global aspect to that. Europe does a lot of light bulb recycling ... we have narrowed our focus mainly on the separation side of things.”
As the company continues to refine its process, funding for the pilot program isn’t the only hurdle.
International market issues have taken an unfavorable turn, and the mines Rare Earth Salt hopes to gather waste from were hit by a Chinese slowdown. Despite market woes, Brewer said the company views itself as an alternative to foreign competition.
“We feel that we can directly compete with the Chinese at their domestic pricing and it’s kind of how we’re selling ourselves,” Brewer said. “We’re not looking to charge a significant premium or anything like that. We feel that we can produce the materials at a reasonable cost and directly compete with the Chinese.”
It was also revealed this month that the company’s co-founder and former CEO, Allen Kruse, was no longer with Rare Earth Salts.
According to Kruse’s LinkedIn page, he accepted a position as a senior partner doing management consulting with CH Consulting Group.
“It adds a little bit of workload to everybody’s plate, but he moved on and we wish him the best of luck,” Brewer said. “I think we are at this point positioned very well with the team we have. We’re going to be running lean, but I think that makes us very likely to succeed, too. Especially given the advisory board we have. We feel we have a high level of success ahead of us, and a high level of probability of it.”
Brewer added that when the pilot program launches, Rare Earth Salts will likely maintain its lab in the Business Campus.