One of the companies looking to establish Wyoming as a hotspot for an increasingly sought-after type of mining is ending 2022 on a high note.
Western Rare Earths, a subsidiary of Australian exploratory developer American Rare Earths, announced Friday that the characteristics of its deposit in southeastern Wyoming indicate that the ore mined there will be relatively easy — and therefore affordable — to process.
“The recent news leads us to believe that it can be competitive, if not better,” compared with other rare earths producers, most of which are located in China, said Western Rare Earths President Marty Weems.
It’s still early days for the company’s Halleck Creek project, Weems emphasized. But everything that’s been found at the site so far — including the deposit’s scope and concentration — has surprised its owners. In a good way.
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Rare earth elements, which are used in dozens of commonplace technologies ranging from smartphones to electric cars to washing machines, are themselves common. They occur all over the place. What’s unusual is finding them in concentrations that are practical to mine.
Halleck Creek appears poised, by all of Western Rare Earths’ preliminary measures, to contain exactly that.
The company landed “a pretty rare piece of ground,” Weems said.
It determined earlier this year that the concentration of rare earth elements throughout most of the deposit ranges from about 0.2% to 0.4% — a number that’s good, Weems said, though not incredible.
Finding economically viable concentrations is a challenge the entire rare earths industry faces, he said: “All the easy mining has been done. … New projects are going to have lower concentrations than the earliest discoveries.”
Oscar Serpell, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, told the Star-Tribune in July that the rare earths projects with the best odds of succeeding, with minimal environmental impacts, would have a high concentration of the desired elements and would be low in radioactive uranium and thorium.
Western Rare Earths knew enough, at the time, to be confident Halleck Creek had a good shot at meeting both criteria.
What the company has learned more recently is that its ore is unusually easy to crush and grind, making that stage of processing more effective, further reducing the need for chemical inputs and lowering energy and maintenance costs.
After processing, “what remains then, effectively, on a per-ton basis, has a much higher concentration at that point,” Weems said. If the estimates hold up, the composition of Halleck Creek’s ore could bring its economics in line with producers participating in the market today.
“This is a really big win,” he said.
The company is still working out the details, like how it’ll mix conventional processing technologies with newer, more efficient methods it’s working with researchers to advance. Its latest findings will help to shape those decisions.
Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, said the string of positive reports from Western Rare Earths in recent months points to “a tremendous opportunity,” both for the industry and for the state.
“There’s a lot of unknowns still,” he said. “To get a start on mining, and eventually processing, those materials in the United States — the door’s wide open. We’re starting from scratch on this, in building this industry in the United States. And we’re doing it right here in Wyoming.”