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Developmental tech could be key to a Wyoming rare earths industry

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Mine Tailings Discoveries

Rare-earth oxides, clockwise from top center: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium, and gadolinium. Rare earth elements are required for key components of cellphones, televisions, weapons systems, wind turbines, MRI machines and the regenerative brakes in hybrid cars.

Both of the companies with plans to mine rare earth elements in Wyoming are also targeting other, thornier parts of the critical minerals’ supply chain.

Western Rare Earths, a subsidiary of mineral exploration company American Rare Earths and owner of the Halleck Creek drilling project north of Laramie, announced Tuesday that it will help test a novel technology intended to streamline the extraction of specific elements from mined ore.

It’s the third such partnership the company has joined, according to Western Rare Earths CEO Marty Weems, who said the plan is to continue partnering with researchers whose work could reduce the costs associated with processing and shrink its substantial environmental footprint — a major reason the U.S. now sources most of its rare earths from China — until some succeed.

“In this processing space, it tends to be trainloads of sulfuric acid and trainloads of kerosene, and then you end up with spent volumes of acid-and-kerosene-soaked sludge material as a waste byproduct,” Weems said. “No one wants that in their backyard, the Chinese included, and we certainly don’t want to bring it to Wyoming.”

He likened refining rare earths to taking a baked cake and trying to reclaim the baking powder. For it to benefit the industry, the methodology has to work not only in the lab, but on the tons and tons of rock moved by commercial operations.

“Quite often, chemists will try to take a very elegant and amazing approach that results in a really cool research paper, but is too elegant and too complicated for scale to industrial size,” he said. “Remarkably, what we saw here was a very simple process that looks like it could scale in a very straightforward way.”

Incremental progress

The separation technique, which is being studied by Virginia Tech and resource recovery company Phinix, targets two of the 17 rare earth elements — neodymium and praseodymium — that are in particularly high demand for use in computers, electric vehicles, some wind turbines and many more everyday technologies.

It’s designed to extract those elements from ore containing at least 300 parts per million — roughly the equivalent of a tablespoon of material dissolved in 10 gallons of water, and the minimum distribution of rare earths to be considered highly concentrated by the Department of Energy — while minimizing chemical inputs.

“We want to make sure the reagent is not spent in calcium and silicone and other predominant elements, but they’re spent attacking the individual element that we’re after,” said Subodh Das, Phinix’s founder and CEO. “It’s very selective, and that’s the art: How selective can you be?”

The Department of Energy awarded the research team an advanced manufacturing grant of up to $500,000 to support laboratory-scale testing and refinement over the next three years. Western Rare Earths joined to supply an industry perspective and the requisite rock.

“We already have some rock material out of the ground, where we’ve been drilling and taking surface samples,” Weems said. “So for us to take some of that material and put it into containers and ship it to Virginia Tech, that’s really quite simple.”

Western Rare Earths hopes supporting lab work will move the young industry forward, Weems said — and help the company land early access to technologies that prove effective during subsequent pilot-scale and demonstration-scale testing.

A national priority

In addition to its Wyoming project, Western Rare Earths is exploring a larger deposit in Arizona that also meets Department of Energy standards, and is on the lookout for more potential mining sites. Early results from Halleck Creek, meanwhile, indicate that the concentration of rare earths there could be much higher.

Full-scale mining at Halleck Creek could be five to 10 years away. The company will also have to wait a long time to see if its investments in the rest of the supply chain — including this one — pay off.

According to Das, that later-stage experimentation could take another five years. Getting there will require the researchers to prove that their method works, consistently, and secure millions of dollars in funding to build and operate a test facility. They’ll also need interested customers.

“We have no control over the market — the price and availability and supply and demand, and what’s happening in China, what’s happening to tariffs,” Das said. “Our job is to lower the technical risk.”

One of Western Rare Earths’ other research partnerships also received funding from the Department of Energy. The third is being supported by the Department of Defense.

“We’re going to take advantage of the available money from the U.S. government, through (the Department of Defense) and (the Department of Energy), to operationalize new, cutting-edge technologies, and try to do it better from the beginning,” Weems said.

The federal government, he said, has made it clear that rare earths are a priority. The signing of the semiconductor-focused CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act earlier this month allocated hundreds of millions of dollars toward the production and processing of rare earths and other critical minerals.

Reaching the market

After they’re mined, rare earths must be concentrated, separated from one another and then converted into metals that can be used in manufacturing.

“The mining itself is not so problematic,” Weems said. “It’s after the rocks are out of the ground, and you start doing the chemistry work to extract the elements from the rock.”

Rare earths’ knotty supply chain is top of mind for Rare Element Resources, the other company conducting exploratory drilling in Wyoming. It’s in the process of permitting a demonstration plant in Upton, near the site it’s been evaluating for close to two decades, where it would use a different experimental method to mill and then magnetically sort ore it has already removed.

Weems said the approach being pioneered by Phinix and Virginia Tech could become a competitor — or a complement — to Rare Element Resources’ process. While the two overlap in the middle, the former uses a rawer material, and the latter generates a more refined product, potentially leaving room for the innovative aspects of both. Whatever it takes to get the industry off the ground.

“As a nation, we were all too happy to let the Chinese do, literally, this dirty work, and no one thought much of it. Now, fast forward to today, and these materials are absolutely critical to a new energy, reduced-carbon future,” Weems said.

Because China also dominates rare earths processing, expanding U.S. mining without building the rest of the supply chain would do little to alleviate the growing concern about the domestic manufacturing sector’s reliance on China. But the emerging U.S. rare earths industry believes technological advancements on the processing side will boost mines’ prospects as well.

“If you can do that processing close to the mine site, the economics are much better, and the cost of the end product is more reasonable for the consumer,” Weems said. “In an ideal world, those things are as close together as possible.”

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