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Brazil joins race to loosen China’s grip on rare earths industry

Mining giant Brazil has big ambitions to build a rare earths industry as Western economies push to secure the metals needed for magnets used in green energy and defence and break China’s dominance of the supply chain

Working to its advantage are low labour costs, clean energy, established regulations and proximity to end markets, including Latin America’s first magnet plant which would provide a ready buyer for the metals.

But low rare earths prices, technical challenges and nervous lenders pose challenges to the Latin American nation’s hopes to propel itself into the world’s top five rare earths producers.

The pace at which Brazil’s rare earths projects come together will be a test for how successful the West may be at building a new advanced industry almost from scratch to break China’s grip.

Brazil holds the world’s third-largest rare earth reserves. The country’s first rare earths mine, Serra Verde, started commercial production this year.

Output is set to grow, analysts, mining CEOs and investors say, supported by Western government incentives that are also accelerating a global rare earths refining and processing industry.

The U.S. and its allies, almost entirely dependent on China for rare earths metals and magnets, set out to build a separate supply chain by 2027 after deliveries were disrupted during the COVID-19 pandemic early this decade.

For countries like Australia, Vietnam and Brazil looking to catch up, progress is slow. Serra Verde has taken 15 years to get into production. It is expected to produce 5,000 tons once ramped up and could double output by 2030, its CEO said.

“Serra Verde and Brazil have significant competitive advantages that could underpin the development of a globally significant rare earths industry over the long term,” Serra Verde CEO Thras Moraitis told Reuters.

Those include attractive geology, access to hydropower, established regulations and a skilled workforce, he said.

Brazil could have two or three more rare earths mines by 2030, potentially exceeding Australia’s current annual output, said Reg Spencer, an analyst at broker Canaccord.

Basement Prices

One major obstacle is a 70% slump in rare earths prices over the past two years that has made it difficult for companies to raise funds for mines and processing.

“Getting money at the moment is tough,” Nick Holthouse, chief executive of Australian-listed developer Meteoric Resources, told Reuters.

Complexities

While labour is cheap, developers face technical hurdles. Unlike in China, many Western companies are still perfecting the complex processes for producing rare earth metals, a costly challenge that has stalled projects for years.

To spur developments, the Brazilian government launched a 1 billion reais ($194.53 million) fund in February to finance strategic minerals projects, including rare earths.

It also wants to build an industry for transforming these minerals into alloys for batteries, wind turbines and electric motors, the Ministry of Mines and Energy said in a statement.

The challenge is to stimulate production and build partnerships to promote element separation technologies and supply chain development, the ministry said. It is also looking into rare earths recycling.

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Reporting by Melanie Burton in Melbourne and Fabio Teixeira in Rio de Janeiro; Editing by Sonali Paul via Reuters

 

 

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