West Texas sun may power rare earth mine
Solar power, US law could put more "green" into green-tech
Last updated 7/29/2020 at 3:32am
Geology dictates where mineable concentrations of the metals we need for our everyday modern lives are located. It so happens that USA Rare Earth LLC and Texas Mineral Resources Corp.'s Round Top rare earths and critical minerals project is in the sunny West Texas high desert. This puts one of America's richest deposits of the rare earths that go into the powerful magnets used in wind turbines and electric vehicles smack in the middle of one of the best places in the world for solar power.
New York-based USA Rare Earth wants to take advantage of Round Top's sunny locale to power the rare earths and battery metals supply chains it plans to establish in the United States.
"With more than 60% of the materials produced at Round Top being used in clean-tech and green-tech applications, we are now committing to extend that clean-green approach into how we design and operate the Round Top Mine," said USA Rare Earth CEO Pini Althaus.
Hudspeth County, where the Round Top rare earths mine project is located, averages roughly 10 hours of sunshine a day for 292 days each year. The flatlands to the north and west of Round Top Mountain are at an elevation of approximately 4,000 feet.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the annual average daily solar irradiance, a measure of light energy per square meter, in this part of Texas is more than 5.5 kilowatt-hours per square meter per day. For USA Rare Earth and Texas Mineral Resources, this means a roughly 45-acre solar farm could generate the estimated 15 megawatts of electricity required to power a mining operation at Round Top. This would be just a small corner of the 60,000 acres of surface leases and land options the partners hold at and around the rare earths and critical minerals deposit.
According to a 2019 preliminary economic assessment, a scoping level study that outlines the engineering and economic parameters of developing and operating a mine, Round Top would produce 2,212 metric tons of rare earths per year. This includes healthy supplies of all six of the rare earths used in high-tech and renewable energy – dysprosium (200 metric tons), neodymium (180 metric tons), praseodymium (67 metric tons), gadolinium (65 metric tons), samarium (65 metric tons), and terbium (23 metric tons).
In addition to rare earths, the mine outlined in the PEA would produce about 10,000 metric tons of the lithium that goes into the rechargeable batteries storing renewable energy, and powering EVs and a growing range of cordless electric devices.
According to current calculations, this West Texas deposit is large enough to supply REEs, lithium and other critical minerals at this rate for more than a century.
USA Rare Earth sees the use of renewable energy to mine and process these high-tech and battery metals as a logical choice.
"Our 100% renewable energy plan means that USA Rare Earth will be producing materials for clean, green, renewable applications – using a process that employs clean, green, renewable power. In addition to powering our project, our approach will enable us to be a net provider of clean energy," said Althaus.
Considering the abundant sun happens to shine down on one of America's richest rare earth and critical minerals deposits, USA Rare Earth believes it makes sense to establish the entire mines-to-magnets supply chain it has envisioned in West Texas. This would include a facility that separates the tightly interlocked rare earths and a plant that produces powerful permanent magnets.
The company is developing an environmentally benign and energy efficient process for separating rare earths at a pilot facility in Colorado, and has already acquired much of the equipment it needs to establish an REE permanent magnet manufacturing plant.
More details on USA Rare Earth's REE mines-to-magnets strategy can be read at USA rare earth separation pilot underway in the June 17 edition of Metal Tech News.
Developing parallel REE mines-to-magnets and mines-to-batteries supply chains using renewable energy and under U.S. environmental laws would put more "green" into green energy.
"For too long, consumers in the U.S. and other industrial democracies have been sold a green fairy tale – the electrical vehicles we drive, the laptops and smartphones we use may be clean and green, but what we are not told is that the materials mined and processed to make them often come from Chinese facilities that cause terrible pollution locally, destroy villages, harm the lives of the workers who produce them, have made the inhabitants in surrounding areas sick, and contribute to global pollution," said Althaus. "It's an open secret that China employs processes that would never be tolerated in the U.S. and other industrial democracies – processes that persist, despite China's claims it is cleaning up its rare earth and critical mineral industries."
The USA Rare Earth CEO says this hypocrisy must end.
"The development of the Round Top project and other domestic rare earth projects is not just about the national security, economic and manufacturing issues that require immediate action to reestablish an independent supply chain, it is also about the United States and industrial democracies leading the way to ensure these critical materials are produced in an environmentally responsible manner," he added.
A rare earth mine, separation facility and magnet plant powered by West Texas sun could make EVs, computers, smartphones, and green energy a lot greener.