In June 2022, the UK-listed mining company Pensana broke ground on its heavy rare-earths separation facility in Yorkshire. Pensana’s facility, which is planned to be the third of its kind outside China once operational in 2024, is the poster project for the UK’s critical mineral strategy and efforts to build resilient domestic supply chains.
Paul Atherley, the chairman of Pensana, spoke to fDi about what makes the UK an attractive place to build such facilities and why developing rare earths independent from China is so important.
Q: What are Pensana’s plans?
A: China currently dominates magnet metal production and magnet metals are incredibly important. The biggest energy transition in history is the transition from internal combustion engines to electromagnetic force, whether it be electric vehicles or generators in the form of wind turbines.
In a very short period of time, we have taken on this very large ore body in Angola and we’re going to develop a sustainable and independent of China source of rare-earth metal oxides — the step before you turn it into metal.
We’re doing all the mineral processing we can in-country, which means the product we export out of Angola is incredibly clean. Then we bring that high-value product into the UK to do the chemical engineering needed for separation to turn it into 99.9% neodymium-praseodymium oxides.
Q: Do you think it is too late for Western governments to develop rare-earth capabilities, given how dominant China is within the industry?
A: It is definitely not too late. The UK has got a world-class chemical sector linked to offshore wind, which means we can leapfrog the Chinese in many sectors.
The world is de-globalising. The Ukraine war has shown us that having a single country dominating any particular critical food or raw material is problematic. We need to have independent resilient supply chains and the UK can play a huge part in that.
Q: Do you think the UK government is doing enough to support critical minerals?
A: The amount of money that’s being provided to Australian and US companies is enormous. The UK government doesn’t need to be writing checks, it needs to be giving support to enable companies like Pensana to go to the capital markets.
It was incredibly important that former secretary of state for business, Kwasi Kwarteng, came to break ground at our Saltend site. It sends a massive signal to the capital market that the British government is behind the project.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.