Vietnam plans to restart its biggest rare earths mine next year. The project could greatly increase the supply of the elements to compete with China. The rare earth minerals help power advanced technologies.
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) says rare earths are a set of 17 metallic elements that are necessary in the production of high-tech products from mobile phones and electric vehicles to advanced weapons.
China only has about one-third of the world’s rare earth reserves. But a 2022 study from Marsh McLennan says that the country now controls more than 60 percent of rare earth mining and 85 percent of processing capacity worldwide.
The USGS estimates that Vietnam has the world’s second-largest rare earth reserves after China. They have remained largely unmined. Last September, U.S. President Joe Biden signed an agreement during his Vietnam visit to help the country with getting investors to open mining operations.
The agreement is a step toward helping the Southeast Asian country build up a rare-earths supply chain. The deal’s terms include developing the country’s ability to turn raw elements into metals used in magnets for electric vehicles, smartphones and wind turbines.
As a first step, Vietnam's government plans to auction several areas of its Dong Pao mine to investors before the end of the year.
Tessa Kutscher is an executive at Australia's Blackstone Minerals, a company that plans to bid on the project. Kutscher told Reuters news agency that Blackstone's investment would be worth around $100 million if it wins. She added that the company was talking to electric car makers, including VinFast and Rivian, about possible supply contracts.
Dong Pao mine
The Dong Pao mine has been inactive for at least seven years. Two Japanese companies, Toyota Tsusho and Sojitz, left mining projects at Dong Pao after China greatly increased the rare earth supply to bring the prices down.
Refining rare earths is complex and China controls many processing technologies.
Still, Hanoi University of Mining and Geology says that rare earths at Dong Pao are relatively easy to mine and are mostly concentrated in bastnaesite ores. These rare earth ores will then be ground into powder and processed into rare-earth oxide (REO).
Luu Anh Tuan is the chairman of Vietnam Rare Earth (VTRE). The company is Vietnam’s main refiner and Blackstone's partner in the project. He expected Dong Pao to produce about 30,000 metric tons of rare-earth oxide equivalent a year.
That amount would put Dong Pao's output a little below that of California's Mountain Pass, one of the world's largest mines, which produced 43,000 metric tons of the element in 2022.
In July, Vietnam’s government said it planned to develop additional mines to produce up to 60,000 tons of REO equivalent a year by 2030. China set its own target of 210,000 tons last year.
Once separated, oxides are turned into metals for use in magnets and other industrial products. China is the world’s leader of the metallization process, producing 90 percent of rare-earth metals, the U.S. Department of Energy says.
But VTRE is working on a project to build a metallization factory with South Korea's Setopia.
Dudley Kingsnorth is a professor at the Western Australia School of Mines at Curtin University. He said Vietnam had some way to go to reach its rare-earth goals. Still, he said, Vietnam "has the resources, the mining and processing expertise to provide alternatives to China."
I'm Caty Weaver.