Ucore Rare Metals Inc. announced this week that it plans to buy two sites in Ketchikan totaling 6 acres for its proposed rare-earth refinery and separation plant.

The sites are off North Tongass Highway past the north end of D-1 Loop. According to Ucore’s Randy MacGillivray, the location is well placed for moving material in and out for processing.

“It’s the right size; it’s zoned heavy industrial; it has highway frontage; and it’s relatively flat and well developed,” he said. “We think it’s a perfect location.”

The facility would be used to process rare-earth metals mined from non-Chinese sources, according to Ucore. The Canadian company is negotiating with the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority to back loans for development of the project.

The state Legislature already has approved a package for Ucore’s eventual development of a rare-earth mine on Prince of Wales Island.

“This separation facility is a component of the overall Bokan Dotson-Ridge rare earth project,” MacGillivray said. “So the Legislature authorized $145 million for the whole project and we would be looking at a portion of that to support development of the separation plant itself.”

Development of the POW mine is on hold until prices improve enough to make the investment worthwhile. Once operational, MacGillivray said product from Bokan Dotson-Ridge would be processed at the Ketchikan facility, along with rare-earth products shipped here from other mines.

He said there will be minimal waste product from the processing plant.

“What we’re going to be doing is bringing in high-grade concentrates,” he said. “So, there’s not a lot of waste associated with those high-grade concentrates. But what waste there would be, solid waste, would then be transported appropriately to a regulated landfill.”

MacGillivray said the timeline for developing the separation plant currently calls for engineering and construction over the next two years, with operations starting in late 2020.

Rare-earth elements are used in high-tech products such as cellular telephones and electric vehicles. Most of the rare earth elements in the market come from China. However, new regulations prohibit the Department of Defense from buying certain rare-earth items from China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. That could increase the market demand.