By Kevin Killough, energy reporter
Rare Element Resources has announced it’s making progress on a rare earth refining demonstration project that will be built near Upton. The company has completed 60% of the plant design and is expecting to complete final detailed engineering later this year.
“We are very pleased that our rare earth demonstration plant project is progressing toward planned construction next summer. Permitting and licensing are now underway with several permits already received and others under agency review,” said Randy Scott, the company’s CEO and president of Rare Element Resources, in a Monday announcement on the project’s progress.
The company began pursuing a rare earth mining operation in 2012. The Bear Lodge Project, as the company calls it, included the Bull Hill Mine 12 miles north of Sundance and a processing plant to refine the ore near Upton.
By 2015, while still winding through the decade-long federal permitting process, the company ran out of money and suspended the process.
Rare Element Resources then began pursuing a small demonstration project, using $22 million of its own money to match another $22 million granted from the U.S. Department of Energy.
Proof Of Concept
The demonstration won’t quite be the commercial scale operation the company had originally pursued, but Scott said it could prove a new rare earth refining process that will attract investors. Conventional processes leave behind tailings piles that are expensive to manage and reclaim. If Rare Element’s process is proven, that won’t be a problem for the Bear Lodge operation.
“One of the aspects of the demonstration plant is that we will not leave any waste material,” Scott told Cowboy State Daily.
Scott said specifics about the process and how it differs from conventional means are proprietary, and he declined to give further details.
“We don’t want everybody, including the Chinese, to know what it is that we’re doing,” Scott said.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 80% of rare earth imports in 2019 came from China.
There is a small amount of minor radiation at the site, so the company needs permits from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission before operations can begin. Scott hopes that will take no more than a year, but nothing is for certain when it comes to federal agencies.
Once the demonstration gets going, Scott said the plant will employ 15 to 25 people, including skilled maintenance technicians, technologists and people with chemical processing backgrounds.
“I think it will contribute nicely to the state of Wyoming’s efforts to diversify its employment opportunities for everybody,” Scott said.
As the company waits for federal approval, Scott said it’s working with the community of Upton to build positive and mutually beneficial relationships. It’s also conducting early expenditures for equipment and services with long lead times, minimizing the effect of inflation and supply-chain bottlenecks.