By Arveent Kathirtchelvan

WLP Front And Centre

On the 4th of May 2019, I went to the Lynas Advanced Material Plant (LAMP) in Gebeng, Pahang for a site visit planned a few weeks ago. Along with me was Dr. Syukri from the Malaysian Nuclear Society (MNS) and my parents, who came along to support me. We were received by the General Manager of LAMP, Mr. Grant McAuliffe, and the Senior Manager of Solvent Extraction at LAMP, Mr. Khairul Suhaimi.

The day started at around 11 am with a display under an open shack at the very front of the process plant. It was a glass-fronted container split into 3 sections showing how they store their Water Leach Purification (WLP) waste. It showcased the WLP is piled on top of a HDPE liner, a geosynthetic clay liner and a PET 400/50 geotextile layer. These layers restrict the permeability of water through the WLP so much that it becomes practically impermeable.

If there is any water seepage, though, it will flow through the bottom-most layer of drainage layer sand into a perforated drainage pipe to be collected and processed. I would learn later that this water and whatever water that has come into contact with the WLP is never released into the river system, rather is used internally and topped up whenever reserves run low. So far, my conviction on Lynas’s waste management system held firm.

The WLP management was such that once a certain residue storage facility is full, it is closed with another HDPE liner. The next step in the management showed how Lynas’s neutralisation underflow (NUF) residue, which is mainly gypsum, is utilised to create a radiation and chemical barrier for the WLP, along with a combination of HDPE liner, soil and loose gravel making up the full closure of the WLP waste. Having seen this, we made our way to the command centre where Mr. Grant enlightened all of us with a presentation on the details of Lynas, their processes, people and machinery.

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A closed temporary Residue Storage Facility (RSF) for WLP at the LAMP. Source: Science

The Full-Process of Lynas

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The full process for Lynas Corp. Source: Lynas Corp

We learned of the whole process with regards to Lynas’s business, starting from their Mt. Weld mine until the final product production in LAMP. The deposits in Mt. Weld are so rich, Lynas’s ore extraction is several times lower than other similar mines as less ores are needed to extract the same amount of final product. There are enough deposits, we were told, for more than 25 years of production with an extra, unexplored deposit nearby as well. The processing in Mt. Weld prior to shipping to Kuantan were explained in detail, with the ores being ground and separated before being packaged. We were concerned about the tailings from this processing but Lynas assured us that 80% of the water was recycled and the sediments were stored onsite.

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Ore being loaded into trucks at the Mt. Weld Mine. Source: Lynas Corp

From there, the ores, now stored in canisters, are brought to Fremantle Port, loaded into a ship, transported to the shipping hub in Singapore from where it makes its way to Kuantan. Here, I learned that Malaysia’s laws regarding radioactive material is 10 times more stringent than even international standards, so much so that the material being transported does not need placards indicating radioactivity throughout the transportation process until it reaches Malaysia. This, it would seem, is an unnecessary complication in regulations.

Once in the LAMP, the ores undergo a few processes, namely Cracking and Leaching, Solvent Extraction and Product Finishing. Cracking and Leaching involves the rare-earth phosphate mineral being mixed with concentrated sulphuric acid and cracked at a high temperature to convert the rare earth phosphate minerals to rare earth sulphate. Water is added to the rare earth sulphate in the leaching stage and impurities in the form of iron phosphogypsum are removed. The solution is neutralised to provide rare earth solution as feed to solvent extraction. The product of this step goes on to Solvent Extraction and the waste produced is WLP.

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Two out of the four 60 metre long gas fired kilns where the rare earth concentrate/acid mixture is “cracked” to become rare earth sulphate suitable for water leaching. Source: Lynas Corp

Solvent Extraction involves two liquid phases (organic and aqueous) and is carried out in liquid-liquid counter current SX trains to progressively separate the rare earths into groups and individual elements. The main products are light rare earths including praseodymium/neodymium – PrNd; cerium – Ce; lanthanum – La; LaCe – lanthanum cerium solutions, and medium/heavy rare earths (samarium, europium, gadolinium – SEG and other Heavy Rare Earths – HRE) solutions.​ NUF is produced as a waste stream in this step.

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One section of mixer settlers from SX5 train. NdPr is separated from LaCe. Source: Lynas Corp

In Product Finishing, the rare earth elements in the solution are precipitated as solid carbonates or oxalates. Some are then calcined (cooked) to the respective oxides. The LAMP produces NdPr oxide, Ce carbonate, Ce oxide, LaCe carbonate and LaCe oxide, and SEG oxide.

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PrNd (Praseodymium Neodymium) oxalate entering one of eight tunnel furnaces for calcination into NdPr oxide in product finishing. Source: Lynas Corp

Waste Management – Continued

Whilst the process was fascinating, what we were more interested in was waste management. Mr. Grant shared with us how their wastes are handled through extracting as much water from them as possible and storing the deposits in managed residue storage facilities temporarily. I questioned him on why Lynas had not built a permanent disposal facility yet for their wastes even when the recommendations to do so stretched back before the latest Executive Committee report.

He answered that the previous regime was pushing for recycling of the wastes, which is why Lynas invested more than the 1% minimum of their revenue into research and development. However, commercialisation seems still far off so, as I understand it, Lynas have begun to look for avenues for permanent disposal. The siting for this step is being done currently with promising results.

Another interesting point brought up is the fact that gypsum needed to make cement, plaster and fertiliser is currently being imported for Malaysia, as much as 1 million tonnes per year. Lynas’s NUF is non-radioactive, non-toxic and non-hazardous and is chemically equivalent to the gypsum imported into Malaysia. Using NUF is about as obvious a no-brainer it is surprising it isn’t done yet.

Potential From the LAMP

It was not until Mr. Khairul took Dr. Syukri and me around the plant that I realise just how much potential is with Lynas. Outside of China, Lynas is the largest company in the world making rare earth metals, with about 20% market capitalisation for Neodymium-Praseodymium (Nd-Pr). This is used to make permanent magnets, which is used for everything from motors in electric vehicles to wind turbines. The other rare earth metals produced could be used to make fluorescent light tubes, catalytic converters, polishing powder for glass and catalysts for the oil and gas industry.

Yet all of Lynas’s products are exported. Imagine the potential for downstream industries. We could be the largest permanent magnet producers outside of China. With electric vehicles being the transportation of the future, these permanent magnets would be imperative to make electric motors that will propel them. Imagine the number of car manufacturers that would come to Malaysia to set up their factories, especially taking into consideration the other option is China whose government is more restrictive.

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How rare earths are used. Source: Lynas Corp

Unfortunately, with the current hostility towards Lynas, there is likely very little investor confidence for this type of investment. Even more baffling is how the electronics and oil and gas industries in Malaysia import rare earth metals from overseas or import finished products containing rare earth metals, paying a hefty premium. At a time when we are facing premature deindustrialisation, what we should be doing is proactively reindustrialise Malaysia to increase economic resilience with an emphasis on future technology. However, we are so enamoured by a handful of environmental NGOs who seem committed to be unscientific in their claims that we cannot see the good Lynas brings.

What’s more, they seem intent on slandering Lynas as a highly polluting company. Not only is this refuted in multiple audits done on Lynas by the Department of Environment (DOE), Atomic Energy Licensing Board (AELB) and, recently, the Executive Committee commissioned by MESTECC to review the operations of the LAMP, the explanation of Lynas officials gave to me during my visit solidified my conviction that they are a sustainable company. This is further proven when taking into consideration the open bauxite mines nearby that remain conspicuously left alone.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, when Mr. Grant helped to serve lunch for my parents, Dr. Syukri, I reflected on how open Lynas is to being visited and audited. The DOE and AELB make frequent visits to the plant and, so far, have reported that it remains completely safe in terms of radiation and is low pollution. Messrs Grant and Khairul even shared that they would be happy to host anyone who would like to come and learn what they do in Lynas. All in all, a happy experience on our part. It is hoped that Lynas would be left alone by the government, at least, and, if they’re smart to do so, whole industries can be built from meaningful trading with Lynas.

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The three of us with the Lynas team. From left, me, my mum, my dad, Mr. Khairul, Mr. Grant and Dr. Syukri

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3 thoughts on “The Sole Left Fist Clenched for Lynas

  1. You must be very pleased now that Malaysia’s taikor has allowed Lynas to continue, as The Edge Markets reports:-

    TOKYO/MELBOURNE (May 30): Rare earths miner Lynas Corp will be allowed to keep operating a processing plant in Malaysia, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said on Thursday, ending months of uncertainty over the future of the Australian-based company’s US$800 million plant.

    Malaysia had earlier halted the process for renewing Lynas’ licence because of waste disposal concerns.

    Lynas is the only significant producer outside China of rare earths, which have military applications and are used in batteries, computers, televisions and many other products.

    “We will allow Lynas to carry on because otherwise we are going to lose a very big investment from Australia,” Dr Mahathir told reporters at a news conference in Tokyo. Dr Mahathir is in Japan to attend a business conference.

    Lynas’ status as a non-Chinese producer came into sharper focus this week after major Chinese newspapers, including the official People’s Daily, reported Beijing was ready to use rare earths to strike back in its trade war with the United States.

    China supplied 80% of the rare earths imported by the United States from 2014 to 2017, when it accounted for 81% of the world’s rare earth production, data from the US Geological Survey showed.

    READ MORE
    https://www.theedgemarkets.com/article/malaysia-let-lynas-continue-running-rare-earths-plant-%E2%80%94-prime-minister.

    Y.B. Wong Tack has already come out with a statement as reported by Free Malaysia Today:-

    “PETALING JAYA: Barely 48 hours after DAP’s Wong Tack, a vocal critic of Lynas Corp, said the Australian rare earths producer “blatantly violated our country’s laws”, the Bentong MP today said there was nothing wrong if the licence was to be renewed if it abides by the law.”

    READ MORE
    https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2019/05/30/lynas-must-abide-by-the-law-says-vocal-critic-wong-tack/

    FMT was unable to reach Y.B. Yeo Bee Yin and Kuantan MP Fuziah Salleh for comment. I wonder what they will will have to say about this decision by taikor.

    Also, will the next prime minister, whether Anwar or someone else reverse this decision?

    Let’s wait and see.

    Like

  2. You’ve also got an ally in pro-UMNO blogger who goes by the handle “Annie”, who is glad for this decision, primarily because saves the jobs of over 1,000 Lynas workers.
    http://lifeofaannie.blogspot.com/2019/05/a-right-decision-on-lynas.html
    Another pro-UMNO (more particularly pro-Najib) blogger “Rocky” (Ahiruddin Attan suggests:-
    “I think this is where Yeo Bee Yin, Zuraida Kamaruddin and Wong Tack tender their resignation to the Prime Minister.”
    http://www.rockybru.com.my/2019/05/lynas-to-stay-says-dr-m.html
    Much more hard hitting is Australia-based ex-Penang lang and strongly pro-DAP blogger Ktemoc who slams taikor over this decision.
    http://ktemoc.blogspot.com/2019/05/mahathir-once-bitten-by-are-twice-not.html
    Quite frankly, I don’t know what the DAP, which has been in the forefront of opposition to Lynas will say about this and will they be willing to criticise taikor in public?
    Also, what will PSM say about this?

    Like

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