How the Coal Industry in Wyoming Can Support the Increased Demand for Rare Earth Elements

Rare Earth Elements

The demand for rare earth elements (REE) is rising, with uses ranging from cell phones and air conditioners to electric vehicles and defense applications. Automakers in the U.S., committed to making desirable and affordable EVs, are investing nearly $55 billion in research and development and over $67 billion in EV manufacturing facilities. The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will invest upwards of $7.5 billion in EV charging infrastructure to spur the build-out of a network of 500,000 EV chargers across the country. Batteries and semi-conductor chips required to make electric vehicles contain these rare earth elements.

The U.S. currently depends on China for as much as 97% of its rare earth element sources but is making efforts to find alternative domestic sources. The federal government has identified REE as one of the 35 items critical to national security and domestic economic prosperity.

Wyoming finds itself in the enviable position to become a leading domestic supplier of REE by having some of North America’s most significant REE deposits. Located in the northeast part of the state, the Bear-Lodge Deposit, which sits under both federal and privately owned land, is estimated to contain 18 million tons of REE. REE has been discovered in the vast coal seams in Wyoming, which are exposed through the coal mining process. Given that the Wyoming is already the largest coal mining U.S. state, with 65% of the economy tied to mining and close to 5,000 workers with expertise in this field, it is well placed to step into the role of the largest domestic REE supplier.

The University of Wyoming has aggressive research programs — supported by nearly $3 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy — to achieve REE domestic independence. Its research is focused on expanding and transforming the use of coal and coal-based resources to produce coal-based products, using carbon ore, REE and critical minerals. However, a lot still must happen before we can reach REE domestic independence.

China controls the REE market in mining and processing; however, it is not regulated and doesn’t meet safety and environmental standards. Even if REE were mined in Wyoming today, it would still need to be shipped to China for processing. Thanks to efforts underway at the School of Energy Resources at the University of Wyoming, we could see REE extraction and processing taking place in North America in the next decade. By establishing a new U.S. domestic source of REE that is mined and processed in a safer and ecologically friendly way, the hope is that companies who are committed to establishing more environmentally friendly supply chains will locate in the U.S.

Although stand-alone REE mining operations will never be as large as standard coal mining operations, if mined alongside coal mining, the revenue generated from the extraction of REE will offer an added financial boost and market diversity to current Wyoming coal mining processes.

Since the early 2000s, market forces, including the low price of natural gas from the fracking boom — coal’s main competition — have contributed to the steep drop in coal production as electricity generation switched from coal to gas. That said, coal will remain a vital contributor to the state’s economy, thanks to numerous non-CO2 producing, commercially viable applications being identified and developed at the Center for Carbon Capture and Conversion at the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources, which is a collaborative group of research scientists and entrepreneurs focused on supporting the future of Wyoming coal and creating economic development & diversification opportunities.

Wyoming is a tremendous state to be working in. It has quite an established workforce in coal mining that we can utilize. However, establishing a U.S. domestic REE supply chain that includes both mining and processing will require a significant amount of financial support from the federal and state governments to help companies enter the REE space and compete with existing players currently controlling the sector.

To learn more about the University of Wyoming’s REE research, visit here.