Current status of Lynas project – Sojitz Corporation
Mr. Fujinori Sato of Chemical Resources Department of Chemicals Division of Sojitz Corporation gave a presentation titled “Rare earth businesses including Lynas project and supply chain” at the 66th Rare Metal Workshop organized by the Okabe Laboratory of the Institute of Industrial Science, the University of Tokyo on 17 July 2015.
At the beginning of the presentation, Mr. Sato (40 years old) said, “My hair has been thinning since I was assigned to Lynas business.” His sincere personality and attitude to work were shown in the humorous and frank confession, which grabbed the interests of the participants at once. It was a really nice way to start a presentation and he seemed to have responded to the 130 participants’ interests in one in a way.
Lynas project enabled him to complete a full marathon twice
Most people including me actually have a negative view on Lynas project.
However, it’s enough admirable that the person in charge gave a presentation on the current situation of Lynas when Molycorp filed for bankruptcy (it remains suspicious that the company has become more active after the bankruptcy…) , many people are concerned also about Lynas and the market environment is far from rosy.
He also confessed that “he is trying to do exercise when he gets stressed out” and got quite a lot of laughs saying, “Thanks to the Lynas project, I completed a full marathon twice.”
Mr. Sato formerly had worked for Nissho Iwai Corporation.
10 years have passed since Nissho Iwai became Sojitz, which has grown into a large company achieving sales of 4 trillion yen and net profit of 50 billion yen.
Niobium is more famous than rare earths among the metal resources Sojitz handles.
The company controls almost domestic niobium market as a sole agency of the Brazilian company CBMM in Japan. CBMM has 90% niobium market share.
Rare earths are handled by the Rare Chemical Resources business in the company.
Sojitz started the business with Lynas in 2010. In concrete terms, the business was started in partnership with Sojitz, JOGMEC and Lynas.
JOGMEC put 250 million dollar into Lynas’ business in Malaysia (LAMP), in which Sojitz also took a stake.
During the period of the rare earth bubble between 2010 and mid-2011, the prices of rare earths had hovered at historic high levels.
It’s now unimaginable that the price of cerium oxide rose to $150/kg. Currently, it’s at $1.5/kg, one hundredth of the day.
The U.S. Molycorp, which used to be compared with Lynas, also resumed production in 2010. While the Japanese government of the day promoted to eliminate dependence on Chinese rare earths, Lynas’ suggestion that “it can supply more than 50% of Japan’s demand for rare earths” was too attractive.
Mr. Sato explained that Sojitz gave a loan to Lynas for the following three reasons.
1. Containing less radioactive materials in ores
2. Having a technical support contract with a veteran rare earth manufacturer, Solvay
3. Having long-term contracts with Solvay and BASF etc.
However, every scenario collapsed since the rare earth market crashed in the middle of 2011.
First, the construction of the plant in Malaysia (LAMP) was delayed by a year and a half. In September 2012, provisional operation permission was obtained. In February 2013, operation was started. In September 2014, official operation permission was obtained. The schedule was quite later than the initial plan.
During this period, there was confusion over the construction of the plant between local residents in Malaysia.
As the prices of rare earths had continued to drop, there was a rumor that LAMP might finish without starting operation.
However, monthly operating cash flow turned positive in December 2014 and monthly free cash flow also turned positive in March 2015.
If I take the liberty of deliver my true message, contrary to my expectations, it’s a little surprising that Lynas has maintained sound management.
Mr. Sato showed the ever-increasing performance as the highlights of the 2nd quarter as follows.
1. Sales was A$51.9 million in June, a new record since its establishment.
2. Cash flow turned positive in the 2nd quarter. Free cash flow turned positive for the first time since its establishment.
3. Free cash flow continued to be positive for the fourth month running.
A participant asked an incisive question that “Will the company remain in surplus as the prices of rare earths are weak?” He answered, “The market environment is not good, but Lynas has continued to make considerable efforts to lower costs.”
And, he added frankly, “I personally feel that it is difficult to increase cash flow while the market is so weak. But, we can’t manage the market. All we can do now is to endure continuing to lower costs.” Lynas relocated its head office to Malaysia, where frontline workers between 40 and 50 years old live in a share house to continue to lower costs.
Also, there was a question about how the 2nd phase was currently going on.
Mr. Sato answered to the question, “Currently, the 2nd phase is also being operated.” Japan secures the right to obtain 8,500 tons of rare earths a year from the 2nd phase for 10 years in the original agreement.
To the question arising in the participants’ hearts of whether Japan really requires such volume of rare earths while the demands for rare earths have decreased for the past several years, honestly, Mr. Sato added, “The 8,500 tons of rare earths is not the volume that Japan must purchase without fail. Now, it’s difficult. First, we would like to arrange to purchase around 4,000 tons.”
He also mentioned to Lynas’ production process.
Lynas mines a three-year supply of ores at the rare earth mine in Australia (Mt. Weld) and stocks them by element (770,000 tons).
Lynas’ ores contain cerium most by 47%, lanthanum by 23.9% and praseodymium by 23.0%.
Concentrates from Fremantle, Australia are separated and refined at LAMP in Malaysia and processed into products in sulfatizing roasting process.
The production in the 2nd quarter was 2,606 tons and the year to date 12 months production was 8,799 tons.
The production target of 15,000 tons will be achieved soon.
Mr. Sato’s answer to a question from a participant about “the difference between Lynas and Molycorp” completely explained the strength and the superiority of Lynas.
“Lynas’ strength is to secure sales channels of cerium and lanthanum with the largest production volume by long term contracts. As to cerium, we have long term contract with Solvay. Also, as to production technology, we use an old-style and some kind of traditional technique to lower costs.”
To a question about wastes produced by separation and refinement of rare earths, Mr. Sato answered that they were as the company announced.
Edited By O.Sasaki