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.
The Full-Process of Lynas
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.