When Ken Collison essentially failed out of chemical engineering school, it seemed like it was the end for him. However, it was just the beginning. Rather than give up, Collison forged a new path. He found a job at an underground mine in Manitoba, worked his way up to miner, fell in love with the industry, went back to school, and graduated with a master’s degree in mining engineering. He eventually became COO of Blue Pearl Mining/Thompson Creek before landing his current position, COO of Nova Scotia-based Ucore Rare Metals Inc.
“Working as a miner is a great career,” Collison says. “I went back to university, took mining engineering, and don’t regret that for one minute. Sometimes a trial in your life works out for the best, and that was certainly my case.”
Ucore is a development-phase mining company that responds to the ever-increasing need for technology metals while developing a North American supply for Western markets, since more than 95 percent of the critical rare earth elements currently come from China. Ucore is developing a project in southeast Alaska to produce rare earth elements, which are among the primary input materials for technology, green energy, and military applications in the 21st century.
Collison’s work has entailed overseeing mining projects from beginning to end, helping research areas, developing training, arranging financing, and more. He loves the work, but it’s whom he works with that makes him want to report to the office every day.
“I was doing the tour of analysts on Wall Street a few years back, before Ucore, and I was partway through my presentation when one of the analysts said, ‘What kind of bonus plan do you have, as I want to know what makes you work hard?’” Collison says. He told the analyst, “Money doesn’t make you work hard. As long as you’re paid what you think is a reasonable salary for the work you are doing, what makes you work hard is interesting work, good people to work with, and a boss that pats you on the back once in a while.”
One of Collison’s current missions is to find an alternate way to separate rare earths outside of traditional, costly, and environmentally invasive methods such as solvent extraction (SX). SX-based rare earth separation facilities consist of large, expensive plants that can cost between $200 million and $300 million. Collison and his team believe they can improve the process and have sourced Utah-based IBC, which utilizes a Nobel Prize-winning technology known as Molecular Recognition Technology (MRT), to extract valuable rare earth oxides.
Pedal to the Metal
Since starting with the Ucore in 2012, Collison has:
Overseen the upgrading of the company’s resource and the delivery of a Preliminary Economic Assessment for the Bokan project
Introduced cost-saving technologies to the mine plan, such as X-ray ore sorting and paste backfill, which in combination could make Bokan the first mine to completely eliminate mine tailings (a waste product) on surface upon closure of the facility, as all tailings would be placed underground as cemented paste backfill
Shepherded an initiative with the State of Alaska that would see the state development agency underwrite the majority of the mine’s capital cost, as a means of developing jobs and economic structure in the Alaskan Panhandle
IBC has used its technology in facilities around the world to recover metals such as bismuth, palladium, and platinum. It is currently developing the means to recover rare earths. This will result in a facility that is much smaller and less expensive than SX facilities. The plant would produce the high-quality products required by the consumers and would recover a higher percentage of the rare earths in the feed to the plant than is currently achieved with SX.
Not bad for a guy who initially dropped out of school.Collison is so excited about the use of MRT that he’s listed it as well as the development of the Bokan-Dotson Ridge mine as his primary goals with Ucore. He sees molecular recognition as a possible game changer for the rare metals industry but also an opportunity for Ucore to expand beyond rare earth mining operations into downstream manufacturing activities. Such activities might include the production of high-purity rare earth oxides and chlorides, specialty metals and alloys, and possible entry into the high-demand rare earth permanent magnet sector.“It’s a very exciting technology that I think is going to really surprise the mining industry,” Collison says. “You can see any number of potential applications in the industry, whether it’s recovering metals from tailings or from waste streams that an operation would normally discharge.”
“When I was asked not to come back to university, I lived in a bunkhouse with 300 guys and grew up in a hurry,” Collison says. “I decided to return to university and now have an opportunity to build another mine, as well as to assist in developing a technology that may change the ground rules of the critical metals industry.” With a bevy of opportunities ahead, the sky’s the limit for Collison and Ucore’s continued growth and success.