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How the State of Wyoming Could Supply the US With Rare Earth Elements



November 19, 2022 - Already a wind energy powerhouse, the state of Wyoming’s economy is 65% tied to mining — most of that coal mining. Wyoming has been the top coal-producing state since 1986, accounting for about two-fifths of all coal mined in the United States in 2020, but the industry has seen its reputation blackened.

Industry innovators, however, are tapping  coal and its waste streams to extract rare earths, 17 essential elements  to realizing an electrified economy. Mining them can be challenging as materials needed are either not yet mined, or are latent in old coal mines. 

Demand for rare earths is being driven mainly by electric vehicles, wind generators, smart phones, and aerospace and defense applications, but China refines most of the world’s rare earths. There is only one active rare earths mine in the US — Mountain Pass in California, but concentrate is shipped to China for processing. 

Northeast Wyoming sits on top of one of the largest REE deposits in North America, and efforts are underway at the School of Energy Resources at the University of Wyoming to reach the day when REE extraction and processing can take place in North America. The school is focused on regulatory policy analysis, identifying where REEs can be found, how they occur, optimal ways for extracting and  processing, and what is required to establish an economically and environmentally viable industry in the US.

The end goal is to establish a full REE supply chain that consists of mining, processing, distribution, and supplying REE to meet advanced manufacturing needs of companies in the US.

Scott Quillinan, senior director of research, School of Energy Resources at the University of Wyoming tells about developments and projects underway. 

MDC: What puts Wyoming at an advantage for a domestic supply chain? 

Quillinan: Wyoming is often called the energy state. If you were to draw a box around Wyoming and treat it as its own country, that would be the largest exporter of energy to the rest of the United States. And we export about 90% of the energy that’s extracted, and that all goes to other states. A lot of times, we are beholden to energy policies and regulations that are out of our control. But rare earth elements aren’t, if we mined them in the state —then we have our own in the state and within the country. A lot of what we’re dealing with is carbon intensity, so if you want to sell natural gas to California, it has to meet a certain carbon intensity level. That standard isn’t developed yet for rare earth elements. So everything within rare earth elements from a policy angle is within our control in the state. 

MDC: How is Wyoming going to become a domestic supplier of rare earths?

Quillinan: Mining is sort of in our DNA. [It’s] the largest coal producing state, the largest uranium producing state, largest bentonite producing state, largest trona producing state. So it makes sense to really transition some of the workforce, the knowledge, the know-how and the friendly mining policies over to other tracts of industries like rare earth elements. 

The way Wyoming is approaching this is we understand that about 90% of our rare earth elements are mined, processed, and manufactured overseas. And that’s a really difficult market to get into. If you want to stand up one mine that has a great resource, you’re going to be competing with global pricing, which is really tough to get into. And not only do you have to mine it, but you also have to ship it overseas for verification and processing. So our approach is really developing that wells to wheels type of program. We feel that that’s really the only way that we can get into the market. 

We’re really working on the exploration and production, the different extraction technologies, on the various infrastructure that needs to be put in place workforce development training. We’re working on commercialization plans – the business approach so we have the full value chain for the industry. And it’s going to take a decade, but that’s what we’re working on. 

MDC: How is the Inflation Reduction Act going to help the extractive industries and energy projects?

Quillinan: Policies are going to play a key role and the IRA is a good start. Having some guaranteed contracts with the Department of Defense would be another good start. Removing impediments that the industry is facing today would be another good start.

MDC: Can you tell us about the different feedstocks in Wyoming?

[We’re] working really closely with rare earth elements that are associated with coal… and the ash layers that are deposited within those. We’re also looking at flash at a coal fired power plant. We’ve got a Bear Lodge deposit, which is a lot of times called the largest unmined, rare earth element deposit and the Bear Lodge deposit just north of Sundance, Wyoming. 

Unconventional sources that we’re looking at are rare earth elements that are dissolved in water that’s produced alongside oil and gas, [and] we’re looking at rare earth elements that may be in phosphate deposits. So with phosphate mines, and uranium mines it’s really an above all approach looking at all these different feedstocks. And each one of them has its own advantage over the other on being able to extract them, we find different elements in each one. But probably the most promising is the ones that are associated with coal.

MDC: How can mining offer Wyoming’s coal industry new life?

Quillinan: They (rees and coal) are co mined, so they’re commingled and that really does add value to Wyoming’s coal. You might be able to sell the coal, but also sell the rare earth elements to help diversify the coal itself. The other thing we’re really working on is working on developing coal products. A mine that today is mining thermal coal, could also be mining coal that’s going to be developed into different different products, but then also provide rare earth elements. It really is about diversifying the economy.

MDC: Rare earth elements are through some chemical process extractable from coal waste?

Quillinan: They are, but what’s interesting is where they’re found within the seam. What we’re finding is they’re located on that top two to three feet of interface between when you switch from non coal, the coal strata, and then again on the bottom. What we see is this kind of ore deposit that’s on the top of the coal seam that’s already being mined. And it’s really kind of just put back into the pit. And that is where the highest concentration elements are. So it could be a really nice value-added product to coal mining. 

When you look at the different types of coal around the country, Powder River Basin coal has a high calcium content. And that allows for the rare earth elements to be extracted from the coal easier than other coals. So from Wyoming’s perspective, that’s fantastic, because we’re finding rare earth element concentrations that are pretty high, but then the chemistry is such that they can be extracted and you get a high yield recovery from the coal itself.

Then we’re also looking at the fly ash, and that same calcium concentration found in the coal that ends up in the flash also makes the flash easily digestible through acids, so that you can get the rare elements out. So that’s kind of the feedstock perspective, but it doesn’t really matter if we find the best feedstocks, we’ve got to be able to extract them economically. And then we’ve got to be able to do some of the processing and beneficiation here in the US. 

MDC: What are the next steps?

Quillinan: The next step is we’re looking at setting up research and development, once a demonstration in a pilot study looking at extracting these rare earth elements. The demonstration facility is being run by Rare Earth Resources, and that’s on the Sundance deposit. That’ll be located in Upton, Wyoming. And then the second is a Department of Energy sponsored project on a rare earth element. coal ash pilot, which will be stood up at the Wyoming Innovation Center just north of Gillette.

It’s being studied. It’s in the permitting phase, and they’re setting up the demonstration facility. They have a large pile of mine tailings that have been sitting there for a few years, and the demonstration facility will be working on what’s already been mined. And if [it’s] successful, then moving to full scale production.

MDC: What is UW doing to prepare the next generation workforce for rare earths?

Quillinan:  One thing that I think we all need to acknowledge is the expertise around rare earth elements has been developed overseas. It exists here, [but] it’s rare. You’ve got your normal disciplines like geochemistry, geomechanics, mining, but there seems to be a large knowledge gap around things like just general rare earth element geochemistry, the kinetics, the thermodynamics. At the University of Wyoming, we’re really focusing on where some of those research gaps are, so that we can develop the coursework to make sure that the students are prepared to go out and have professional careers around rare earth elements and critical minerals. 

The other thing we’re doing is working on a workforce development program with our community colleges,  being able to just kind of tap into the technical training that they do for their miners in the area, and beginning to supplement that with understandings of earth elements, element chemistry, and we are even are working on a batch program, where you go in and get trained on a piece of equipment, we’re doing the same thing with our community colleges where you can get in and get trained on a certain aspect of earth elements and earn a badge for example, or a certificate. 

MDC: What work is being done at the Wyoming Innovation Center? 

Quillinan: It was developed to take stuff out of the lab so products are worth element extraction. The project that’s in there is our rare earth element, coal ash pilot. They’re using feedstocks from two of the Wyoming coal fired power plants that are located next to that facility, and looking to extract rare earth elements from the coal ash. That project is going really well. It’s in its second year, so we hope to demonstrate that project at the facility in the first quarter of next year. And then that project will be looking to go to a much larger demonstration if it’s successful.

The resources have to be identified, the mining practices have to be identified,  the technologies need to be developed in order to extract them from the specific feedstock that we’re finding them in. And then it has to be a full value chain development. If it’s based on just mining and shipping the elements back overseas I don’t think any of the mines that are started will last very long at all. 

MDC: Why? 

There’s too many externalities. At that point, you’re really at the mercy of price control from areas that have 90% of the market.

The coal mines and rare earth element extraction, [are] working hand in hand. It’s another product that can come out of there. I often get asked [what] if we closed the coal mine just to mine rare earth elements out of it? The coal is such a tremendous resource. And if you can mine the coal and the rare earth elements at the same time and get them both out, then that makes a lot more sense.

MDC: What policies are needed at the federal and state levels to ensure that mining of rare earth elements in Wyoming are going to be economic and environmentally viable propositions?

Quillinan: The best thing we could do is develop standards, international standards around environmental sustainable practices and earth elements and environment and sustainable labor standards. That’s more of an incentive program, but perhaps the large companies that are buying rare earth elements would love to buy a rare earth element stamped with a certain standard that says it comes from an environmentally sustainable mining practice. I think from the federal level, developing department of defense contracts to guarantee domestic markets for earth elements would be incredibly helpful.

Rare earth elements are really the key to developing green energy technologies. And as we move through the energy transition, I think finding enough rare earth elements is key.