Corks on champagne bottles are popping in Upton with the U.S. Department of Energy concluding that a rare earth demonstration plant planned for the northeast Wyoming town poses no significant environmental impact.
The finding is the next to last step in a lengthy process to clear the way for construction of a demonstration-scale rare earths processing plant in Upton that is pioneering a new, more efficient method to extract rare earths.
Rare Element Resources CEO Brent Berg told Cowboy State Daily the finding leaves just one thing outstanding before construction can begin. That’s Department of Energy approval for its $21.9 million cost-share, which is about half the construction cost of the demonstration plant. Wyoming Energy Authority has kicked in a $4.4 million grant as well.
“We expect that (DOE) approval for the budget in the very near term and are already gearing up to start construction on the site,” Berg said.
That effort has included building and testing skid-mounted equipment off site.
“That way when we bring that equipment on site in Upton, it’s already been tested, and we can kind of just plug and play in that construction period on site,” Berg said. “And we’ve done that knowing that, you know, this approval timeline could take some time with DOE. This way, we can keep the overall construction schedule shortened.”
Berg believes Rare Element Resources will still be able to start construction of the demonstration plant by the end of November, in keeping with the company’s original timeline. Once construction begins, it’s expected to take about seven months.
“That gets us to next summer, when we anticipate operating the plant for a 10-month period,” Berg said.
The test period will produce data about the process, which the company will use to determine whether to expand the Upton plant to commercial scale, and what will be needed to accomplish that.
The Upton demonstration plant will further test a new method for rare earth processing that Berg has told Cowboy State Daily will be less costly and more efficient than anywhere else in the world.
Success at the Upton plant will help place Wyoming at the center of national efforts to loosen China’s stranglehold on rare earth minerals, which are needed for about 200 technological products across a wide array of sectors.
“We’ve tested and retested the technology, and know it works at (the laboratory scale),” Berg told Cowboy State Daily this summer during an open house touting the company’s progress. “The challenge now is to step it up into a much larger demonstration scale and show that it works at that level.”
The expectations for the Upton demonstration plant are very high.
“We want to see a product that’s higher than 99-and-a-half-percent pure,” Berger 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 earths mine.
The company’s 1-ton mineral sample has a rare earth content of about 10%, while the whole Bear Lodge deposit is a little more than 3%.
Concurrent with the federal regulatory review and its own off-site construction and testing, Rare Element Resources has been further sampling its resource at Bear Lodge. The results of that suggest the size of the prize is larger than initially thought, Berg suggested, and slide decks are being prepared to showcase that to potential investors.
The type of rare earths that Rare Element Resources will be mining from its Bear Lodge deposit are neodymium and praseodymium. These are particularly valuable for making high-strength, permanent magnetic materials that are particularly needed in electric vehicle car batteries.
Success in scaling up Rare Element Resources processes could place Wyoming at the center of national efforts to source rare earth elements, with not just a world-class mining resource, but a first-of-its-kind processing method that’s better than anywhere else on the planet.
There now is just one American location in California mining the rare earths that the nation needs. It still has to send the resource overseas for processing.
China has long controlled up to 87% of the global magnet market for rare earths, according to an executive order signed by President Joe Biden.
Biden is not the first president to focus on developing an improved supply of rare earths. The past seven presidential administrations have also cast a similar net for these critical minerals.
With its long history of mining, Wyoming is well-positioned for rare earth mining. It has the right infrastructure and legal structure already.
Having the world’s most efficient, cost-effective method of processing on top of that could bring a tremendous value to add to that already strong position.
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.