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Russia’s Tomtor – Future Arctic storehouse for missions to Mars and super engines

Only a sixth part of that area has been studied; this territory may be a real reservoir for the world in the future, an expert said

TASS, November 3. /TASS/. In Yakutia’s deep Polar area, about four degrees north from the Polar Circle, there is a unique deposit called Tomtor. When talking about it, deputy head of Rosgeologia’ scientific-technical council, an expert of the Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Geology and Mineralogy Nikolai Pokhilenko, is full of enthusiasm.

The academician jointly with experts from the Siberian branch of the Academy of Sciences’ institutes has been studying the rich Tomtor for a few decades, and the growing technologies only raised the value of the rare earth elements deposits there - a group of 17 elements, which are of demand at high-tech spheres. Without those metals, no shuttle bus would take passengers to an airport, nor will Elon Musk colonize the Mars.

"Vlad Filev (co-owner of the S7 Group Vladislav Filev - TASS) has bought a cosmodrome, now orders rocket carriers and plans a settlement on the Moon. Musk (the founder of the SpaceX Elon Musk - TASS) wants to launch in 30 years a millions-worth ship to the Mars," the scientist said, telling about the value of rare-earth elements.

However, use of rare-earth elements is not limited to space developments. Those metals, the Earth's biggest deposit of which is in Tomtor, are used in every-day life. Even a small share of them in the alloy adds unique features to steel, and this combination can improve materials for high-speed transport, skyscrapers and bridges.

"Take Scandium - it is in aviation construction, rockets. It makes aluminium as strong as almost steel, it would not oxidize in the atmosphere. Aircraft, vehicles - their bodies could be made not of iron, but of aluminium alloyed with scandium. Have you been to Domodedovo [airport]?" the scientist asks suddenly.

According to him, the buses, which take passengers across the airport, are made of this alloy. Unlike buses made of stainless steel, they are light and save fuel.

Super-strong magnets, made of rare-earth elements, add to durability of modern engines and generators, and with a small share of praezeodim in alloy, they add to the exploitation temperatures: magnet features remain even beyond the Curie point.

"There are lots and lost of new materials, combining six-eight rare-earth elements," the academician exclaims. "Combining gives fantastic features!"

For example, if scandium is added to the alloy for electricity wires, they would not oxidize and thus would become practically everlasting. But, light and durable, such wires still would be rather big due to aluminium's low conductivity. But - if alloyed with scandium, plus yttrium (only 300 grams per a tonne) - the conductivity jumps by 2.5 times.

"And thus, we are cutting the volume, and with our big distances we are cutting the losses," the scientist said.

REE for future

The REE global consumption is about 180 thousand tonnes a year, and it would be only growing as technologies continue developing. However, China remains the only big supplier - reserves of its flagship deposit, according to the scientist, are about 120 million tonnes. Tomtor's resources are estimated at 154 million tonnes.

China, practically a monopoly on the REE market, consumes about 70% of the elements. The Russian industry is far from scales of the kind.

"In the late 1980s, our industry consumed about 6,500 tonnes, and now - only slightly over 1,000 a year - this shows the consumption has shrunk by six times. This is very regretful, but we have big plans for modernization and then progress towards the sixth technological paradigm. Judging by the parameters and directions in the strategy for the Russian scientific-technological development, the REE consumption would jump up multifold," the expert said.

Since now the consumption in Russia is not big, he continued, it is most important to find a free niche on the external market, currently controlled by China.

"Take, for example, gold: you produce one gram - it's no headache, you get 2,600 rubles ($44) on your pocket. One kilogram - 2 million 600, one tonne - 2 billion 600 million. Just extract and that's it - no problems with selling: gold is gold. And now, take, for example, 50,000 tonnes of REE when the industry's consumption is about 1,000 tonnes. What are you doing with the remaining 49 thousand? You need a niche on the market," he said.

The quality of the raw material's preparation is most important. The price on one kilogram of scandium with impurities on the global market is about $1.5 thousand, and scandium purified to "three nines" is $15,000. Russia has such a purification technology.

Our eggs and butter for best cake recipes

The academician suggests using Tomtor’s huge resources to make own high-tech production. Here, he uses the example of culinary.

"Now imagine, you want to develop a business in baking cakes. You have a great, experienced cook - he is making them beautifully, always sold out! Nevertheless, he would not disclose the recipe to you. But, he is short of eggs and butter, and your stock of those is unlimited. So, you come with a suggestion: look, I am giving you eggs and butter - as much as you need, and you teach me how to cook. So, the cook gives out the recipes, comes to teach you - would show how to make them. And, at last, everyone is happy - you would not waste money buying cakes from the cook, you would make them yourself. And later on, you understand there are neighbors, which are enemies with the cook, as his goat would come to their yards, you - with the skills and adding a more elegant rose on top - start selling the cakes to them," he said.

However, the Japanese, Koreans or Germans are interested not in eggs or butter, but in having rare earth elements. They use them to produce high-tech equipment, which Russia now has to buy from abroad, the scientist said, adding Russia should offer to foreign counterparts the REE they want, though on a condition: "Let's build jointly on our territory a couple of plants to produce this and this and that for our domestic market. A part of the revenues would be yours, and a part - ours. Our engineers develop, get to the sixth technological paradigm and further on apply the competence. In case we are doing it on our own, it will take us too long. Thus, the solution is to move forward hand-in-hand with 'the cook'," the academician said.

Among potential partners he sees Japan, South Korea, Germany and France. As for the Chinese businesses, he suggests being cautious with them and recalls the disappointing experience of Liotech in Novosibirsk. The plant, which opened in 2011 as a joint project of Rusnano and China's Thunder Sky Group, was to become the biggest enterprise producing lithium-ion batteries. The investments were 14.8 billion rubles ($253 million), but the plant still did not reach the planned capacity. In 2013, the Chinese partner quit the project and from 2016 bankruptcy proceedings continue at the plant's managing company.

The Tomtor Triangle

Studies of the Tomtor deposit began back in the 1980s from the Burannyi field. The work was ordered by the Alrosa Company, which, as the deposit proved to have no diamonds, the company's core material, refused from the plans to develop it. About a year ago (in 2016), specialists of Yakutgeology estimated the resources of the Severnyi and Yuzhnyi fields, next to Burannyi. The work was ordered by a joint venture of Rostec and ThreeArc Mining.

In May 2014, the company wins the right to work at the Tomtor deposit. In early June, Russia's Minister of Industry and Trade Denis Manturov said in an interview with TASS the deposit's development is due to begin in 2018 already.

Results of new studies show the estimated resources are three times bigger, and the deposit contains new types of ores with high concentration of the core components. For example, rarely found manganese - after collapse of the USSR all the fields are now in Ukraine. However, Tomtor's resources are sufficient to satisfy Russia's demand in it.

The studied fields - Burannyi, Severnyi and Yuzhnyi - make only the top of the iceberg. They take the total area of only 40 square kilometers, while the entire deposit is about 300 square kilometers. It is studied only a little. Academician Pokhilenko does not doubt Tomtor still has discoveries to offer. In the western part of the Udzhinsky hill, where the deposit is located, miners extract placer diamond, but besides they find there platinum - and quite much of it.

"We have studied only a sixth part of that area; the territory of the Udzhinsky hill, including the Tomtor and three other sites, may be a real reservoir for the world, and the reserve there could be sufficient for a thousand years to go," the academician said.

Here, the scientist is speaking about the unique "space diamonds" (diamond-lonsdaleite), which were found in the Popigaisk crater, which is not far from Tomtor. The crater appeared about 30 million years ago after a meteorite hit the ground there. Having studied the diamonds in the area, scientists found their unique features - they are much more durable than natural or synthetic stones and have higher abrasive and cutting features. Thus, instruments, like, for example, drilling equipment, may work for much longer.

That area, the scientist continued, could be rich in diamond deposits, comparable with the Mir and Udachnaya pipes. Thus, the academician suggests developing the range as a complex: "It would be a mining-geological cluster, which has REE, the Popigai materials, precious metals (platinum, gold) and good jewelry diamonds. Moreover, all this is in one place. An ecologically clean cluster, located in the Arctic, which, in addition, is of a high geo-political importance."