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 MINING.com 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.
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