The University of the Philippines (UP) is set to embark on a survey that could lead to the exploration, development and commercial production of scandium deposits and other rare-earth elements in the country.
Carlo Arcilla, director at the UP National Institute for Geological Sciences, said his agency was working with the Department of Science and Technology (DoST) to identify scandium-rich areas.
“Our aim this year is to determine the level of scandium concentrates. The process of isolation will be part two of the research. We have a very good chance of becoming big on scandium,” Arcilla told reporters.
With P10 million in funding from the DoST, UP will study the economic potential of scandium in nickel-rich areas of Palawan, Surigao, Zambales and Mindoro.
Scandium, along with other rare-earth elements, is dubbed the “metal of the future” and a “strategic mineral” because of its uses in the development of weapons guidance systems and “space-age technologies.”
Rare-earth elements are immensely valuable and, even in small quantities, can drastically change the properties of materials. This makes them irreplaceable in the manufacture of wind turbines, cars, computers, smartphones and other high-tech applications.
Despite their name, rare earth elements are relatively plentiful in the earth’s crust. They are not particularly rare, but are difficult to separate from each other. The principal concentrations of rare-earth elements are associated with uncommon varieties of igneous rocks.
Potentially useful concentrations of rare earth-bearing minerals are also in placer deposits, residual deposits formed from deep weathering of igneous rocks, pegmatites, iron-oxide copper-gold deposits, and marine phosphates.
“At present, scandium costs $170 per gram. China remains the biggest producer because they are the ones with the technology to extract the scandium,” Arcilla said.
An aluminium-scandium alloy can also play a significant role in the development of the country’s steel industry. The problem is that manufacturers have never been able to get hold of sufficient scandium supply.
Worldwide production is estimated at just 20 tons per year, with the majority coming as by-products from Russian and Chinese mines.
Because of its economic potential, scandium is generating interest among local miners, Arcilla said, noting that Nickel Asia Corp. had signed a partnership with UP to study the scandium content of its nickel mines.
“We have already started with Rio Tuba. We will start surveying Taganito this year,” Arcilla said, referring to Nickel Asia mines.
Arcilla is hopeful the result of the research will pave way for a government policy on the development of a downstream industry for rare-earth elements. Even without a downstream industry, however, the occurrence of scandium in nickel ores can potentially give miners higher values for ores shipped to China, he said.
“If we can detect very high content [of scandium], then the next phase will be how to try to recover it with existing technologies,” he said. “If it can’t be recovered, too bad. But if we can do something, then we might be able to prevent the export of raw ores and then increase the value added.”
UP plans to discuss the matter with the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines and mining companies for possible partnerships and funding for research on scandium and other rare-earth elements.