UPTON — China has long had a stranglehold on the world’s supply of rare earths, which are used in a wide array of technological gadgets ranging from cellphones to electric vehicle car batteries. But Wyoming may soon be in a position to loosen that stranglehold thanks to a company that’s investing in a $44 million Wyoming rare earths project.
Rare Element Resources held an open house Monday to celebrate progress toward building a demonstration-scale plant in Upton that will test a new way of processing rare earths that CEO Brent Berg told Cowboy State Daily is both less costly and more efficient than anywhere else in the world.
“We’ve tested and retested the technology and know it works at (the laboratory) scale,” he said. “The challenge now is to step it up into a much larger demonstration scale and show that it works at that level. And this is new, proprietary technology that we’re advancing here. It’s not being done like this anywhere else in the world.”
The specs the demonstration plant has to meet are high, Berg added.
“We want to see a product that’s higher than 99-and-a-half-percent pure,” Berg said. “And then, secondly, we want to see a range of 92 to 97% recovery from the bulk mineral sample from Bear Lodge.”
Bear Lodge is the company’s nearby rare earth mine. The 1-ton mineral sample taken from that mine has a rare earth content of around 10%.
“If you were to look at the whole Bear Lodge project, it’s a little over 3%,” Berg said. “So, the sample we have is a higher concentration. It was taken from an area in the deposit where we knew that it was a higher-grade area that we could extract quickly.”
Place Your Bets
Building the demonstration project is a $44 million bet not only that the Bear Lodge deposit near Upton has long-term potential — 35-plus years according to current analyses — but also in a process that’s potentially a game-changer for U.S. rare earth production.
That bet is being laid on top of $140 million in investment in Bear Lodge that’s already been spent.
“One of the things with rare earth elements mining and mineral processing is that the processing is much more challenging than perhaps other mineral commodities,” Berg said. “And so that’s why we’re really focused on this demonstration-scale plant.”
Their proprietary process not only includes fewer steps, but produces less waste.
“We hope to see a lower cost process, which we’ll find out with this demonstration,” he said. “Within the pilot tests that were done, we developed a control philosophy where we’re able to make really discrete changes to our process at any individual step, and very efficiently optimize the process.”
The bet is not being taken by Rare Element Resources alone. The Department of Energy is putting up about half the cost, and Wyoming Energy Authority is kicking in another $4.4 million.
One reason there’s so much excitement around this is that if the process proves out at Bear Lodge, it could be generally applicable to other rare earth mining efforts in Wyoming and the United States. That could kickstart a new renaissance in mining the rare earth elements that are critical for computers, cellphones and those electric vehicle car batteries that are now the darling of America’s push to transition to green energy.
“Really, the only mining operation that is active today is Mountain Pass Mine in California,” Berg said of U.S. rare earth production. “And right now, the product from that mine gets shipped overseas for processing and refining and magnetproduction.”
In Wyoming, however, there’s another project near Wheatland called American Rare Earths.
Berg said RER has already had some conversations with them about future collaborations.
“They’ve got a pretty encouraging project, and hopefully we can do something together in the future,” Berg said. “It’s a different mineralogy with their deposit. But probably the synergy that might be there is this processing and separation technology that we’re deploying. Perhaps we could look at a running some sort of demonstration with their material.”
Construction Set To Begin Soon
The paperwork with the Department of Energy has just one more signature left, Cowboy State Daily was told during Monday’s open house to celebrate the project’s recent progress.
The company anticipates it will have that signature within a couple of weeks.
Delivery of skid-mounted equipment is already underway, Berg said, and upgrades have already been made to the transportation corridor in Upton leading from the plant site just outside of town at a former 8.2-acre brownfield site.
After that “we’ve got seven months of construction we hope to start in November,” Berg said. “That gets us to next summer when we anticipate operating the plant for a 10-month period.”
That will produce data about the process the company will use to determine its next steps.
But Berg is highly optimistic about what the demonstration plant will show.
“We are working on things for Bear Lodge now,” he said. “We collected an update around the baseline sampling for the proposed mine last year and we are currently updating the resource model and plan to publish a new technical report for the project.
“We’re doing things kind of incrementally and alongside the demonstration plant, so that once we have the data from the demonstration plant, we can hit the go-button on starting permitting for the mine again and really advance it.”
One of the reasons Berg is so optimistic is its partnership with General Atomics, a San Diego-based company.
“They’ve got the best scientists and engineers I’ve worked with my entire 25 years in this industry,” he said. “If anyone can get this done, it’s them.”
More Than Just Jobs
Success at Rare Element Resources’ Upton site is about more than better jobs for Wyoming, Berg said.
There is high interest at top levels of government in establishing a rare earth element supply with the past seven presidents highlighting rare earths as critical to national economics and security.
“Wyoming can really make a step change for the country in establishing a rare earth element supply chain,” Berg said.
And establishing a strong hub here will no doubt encourage additional investment in Wyoming, which is recognized as one of the most business friendly states in America. That could eventually include value-added enterprises, such as magnet production.
“Wyoming has a real opportunity to attract investment once we get this thing up and running,” Berg said.
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.