The US Department of Energy has determined that the planned rare earth demonstration plant in Upton, Wyoming, will not have a significant environmental impact. This finding is a crucial step towards the construction of the plant, which aims to extract rare earths using a more efficient method.

CEO Brent Berg of Rare Element Resources states that only Department of Energy approval for the cost-share is pending before construction can commence. The company expects approval in the near future and is already preparing for construction.

What the Upton plant will do

Construction of the demonstration plant is projected to start by the end of November and finish by next June. Following this, the Wyoming rare earths plant is expected to operate for ten months. During this time, it will generate valuable data for future decision-making.

Success at the Upton plant has the potential to position Wyoming as a key player in the national endeavor to reduce China’s dominance over rare earth minerals. These minerals are essential components in approximately 200 technological products spanning various industries.

In an interview with Cowboy State Daily, Berg said that the company has extensively tested its processing technology and has confirmed its effectiveness at the laboratory scale. The next challenge is to successfully implement it on a much larger demonstration scale.

Expectations for the Upton demonstration plant are quite high. Specifically, the aim is to achieve a product purity level exceeding 99.5% and a recovery rate ranging from 92% to 97% from the bulk mineral sample obtained from Bear Lodge, the nearby rare earths mine owned by the company.

Rare Element Resources has been simultaneously conducting federal regulatory reviews, off-site construction, and testing. Additionally, the company has been conducting further mineral sampling at Bear Lodge. This sampling suggests that Wyoming’s rare earth minerals could be even more valuable than initially anticipated.

The rare earth elements that Rare Element Resources will extract from the Bear Lodge deposit mainly consist of neodymium and praseodymium. These elements are highly valuable for producing strong, permanent magnetic materials. They’re particularly vital for electric vehicle (EV) batteries.

The plant’s political significance

If Rare Element Resources successfully scales up its processes, Wyoming could emerge as a prominent source of rare earth elements. A recently discovered rare earths deposit just outside of Sheridan, Wyoming, is estimated to be worth around $37 billion.

Political officials have been increasingly sounding the alarm over China’s control of rare earth minerals. Dependence on China could endanger the US economy if trade tensions intensify.

Earlier this month, Senators Mark Warner and Joe Manchin stated that China is up to 20 years ahead of the US in EV battery manufacturing capabilities. China’s advantage is due to its control of rare earth mineral supply chains.

Wyoming is not the only Western US state with significant untapped rare earth mining potential. In September, a 120-million ton lithium deposit was discovered within the McDermitt Caldera, located along the Oregon–Nevada border. This is the largest lithium deposit in the world.

Image Source: Mining Technology