Northern Minerals (ASX:NTU) has further highlighted the fragility of rare earths supply chains after it decided to suspend site operations at its Browns Range pilot plant in Western Australia’s East Kimberly region due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This follows closely on the heels of Lynas Corporation’s (ASX:LYC) decision to temporarily cease production at its processing plant after the Malaysian government imposed tighter movement controls to limit the spread of the virus.

Northern Minerals said the decision was made due to the extreme remoteness of the Browns Range site and to protect the vulnerable Aboriginal communities, many of which are located within the Kimberley region.

The 60,000-tonne-per-annum pilot plant, which produces primarily dysprosium and terbium, is one of the few rare earths processing plants outside of China and is designed to assess the technical and economic feasibility of a full-scale commercial operation for the xenotime-hosted rare earth development.

“While this decision will obviously have a significant impact in the near term, we are hopeful that our resilience and adaptability will ensure our longevity and that Northern Minerals will be ready to rebound when the global situation improves,” managing director George Bauk said.

Despite the suspension of plant operations, the company is not sitting still and is expecting to release a resource update within the next few weeks — for the high-grade Dazzler deposit following the recent drilling program.

Results from the test work program for the pilot plant will also be analysed during the production hiatus and any further refinements to the processing flowsheet will be implemented as part of the potential re-start of the pilot plant.

Additionally, Export Finance Australia has advised the company that it is willing to continue to explore the potential provision of finance required for the Browns Range processing plant.

Discussions are also continuing with the Australian Taxation Office to confirm the final refundable research and development tax offset for 2016/17 and 2017/18.

Northern Minerals scored a significant victory in February after AusIndustry reversed its initial findings and decided that most of the company’s activities were actually in fact eligible for the R&D tax offset.

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