Texas rare earths mine developers to build U.S. refinery

(Reuters) - Developers of a Texas rare earths mine said on Monday they will build a pilot plant to refine the strategic minerals, the latest domestic processing project announced at a time when more Americans are voicing concern about China’s control over the sector.

China is the largest global processor of rare earths, a group of 17 minerals used to make a range of electronics and military equipment.

Texas Mineral Resources Corp TMRC.PK and privately held USA Rare Earth said they will spend $10 million to $12 million to build the pilot plant in Colorado, near industry consultants and academics.

The partners hope to be producing small amounts of processed rare earths by the middle of 2020 - roughly 100 kilograms (220 pounds) annually. This would help them finalize supply deals with potential customers and secure financing for a full-scale plant near their Round Top mine in rural west Texas.

The partners plan to move the pilot plant to Texas by 2021 and have full-scale production by 2023.

California’s Mountain Pass mine, which is controlled by a hedge fund, is building its own rare earth processing equipment and hopes to have it online by next year.

Australia's Lynas Corp LYC.AX earlier this year signed a memorandum of understanding to build a U.S. rare earth processing facility with privately-held Blue Line Corp.

Separately, the U.S. military has launched plans to fund construction of rare earths processing facilities, according to government documents seen by Reuters, part of an urgent push by Washington to secure domestic supply of the minerals. The military has already extended the deadline to apply for funding three times.

Texas Mineral Resources and USA Rare Earth did apply for funding from the U.S. military, though they said such funding is not needed to build out their pilot plant.

“We don’t want to sit and wait,” said Pini Althaus, chief executive of USA Rare Earth, an Australian investment group previously known as Morzev Pty Ltd before changing its name last year. “There’s a sense of urgency around the need for a (rare earths) processing facility that’s not in China.”

The facility will process so-called light rare earths as well as heavy rare earths, a less-common type of the specialized minerals that are highly sought after for use in weaponry.

Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Editing by David Gregorio