Wyoming rare earths plant gets final okay
Metal Tech News - November 17, 2023
Last updated 11/27/2023 at 3:48pm
DOE finishes NEPA review needed to build demo plant that will process a high-grade rare earth sample from the Bear Lodge project north of Upton, Wyoming.
Clearing another hurdle on its path to offering a reliable domestic alternative to China for the rare earths needed to propel the clean energy transition, Rare Element Resources Ltd. Nov. 16 announced that the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy has finalized its National Environmental Policy Act review of the company's planned rare earth processing and separation demonstration plant to be built in Upton, Wyoming.
"The DOE's completion of its NEPA review was the final federal licensing approval required, and we thank the DOE for its completion of this important task," said Rare Element Resources President and CEO Brent Berg.
The processing plant is a key facet to the company's plans to develop a mine at Bear Lodge, a project in northeastern Wyoming that hosts 18 million metric tons of measured and indicated resources averaging 3.05% (1.2 billion lb) rare earth oxides.
Bear Lodge is not only large and high-grade, but it also happens to be enriched with neodymium, praseodymium, dysprosium, and other rare earths that go into powerful magnets needed for electric vehicle motors, wind turbine generators, and countless other high-tech applications.
"The permanent magnet motor is what it is all about because the permanent magnet motor is the future of electric propulsion," said Neal Blue, chairman of General Atomics, which is developing the demonstration plant and is a major Rare Elements shareholder. "Rare earths are essential to the permanent magnet as well as very advanced microprocessor technology where the feature size is reduced to near atomic levels."
When it comes to sourcing this suite of 14 technology metals, however, the U.S. is currently beholden to China, which accounts for roughly 70% of the rare earths mined globally and at least 85% of the processing needed to separate these tightly interlocked elements into products that can be used.
The processing side of this equation makes the plant being developed by Rare Element and its partners important to Washington lawmakers and regulators.
"We cannot allow ourselves to continue to be dependent on our adversaries for rare earth elements. The work being done by Rare Element Resources is especially important to our national security," U.S. Senator Barrasso, R-Wyo., said during an Upton open house hosted by Rare Element Resources in October. "I am proud to be a part of the united front in Wyoming to protect our resources, jobs, and way of life."
Demo coming in 2024
The DOE NEPA review completes the federal permitting process for the rare earths processing and separation demonstration plant.
"This DOE approval will clear the way for the commencement of site renovations and equipment installation," said Berg.
Earlier this year, Rare Element Resources was issued another key license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is common for rare earths projects that could also contain uranium and thorium.
Following the issuance of the NRC permit, Rare Element transported 900 metric tons of previously stockpiled ore averaging approximately 10% rare earth oxides at Bear Lodge to the site of the coming processing plant in Upton, about 30 miles to the south.
With the permits and stockpile in place, the rare earths mining and technology company is anticipating the release of the next phase of funding from DOE, which is providing about 50% of the estimated $44 million cost for the plant that will demonstrate an innovative rare earths processing and separation technology pioneered by General Atomics, a division of General Dynamics.
Synchron, an affiliate of General Atomics that owns a 54.8% stake in Rare Element, has already tested its technology on Bear Lodge material at a pilot plant in Germany – successfully producing 13.6 kilograms (30 pounds) of the neodymium-praseodymium oxide used in EV motors at commercial grade.
Following the pilot test, this innovative process was optimized to provide additional environmental and cost advantages over other REE separation technologies.
It is expected that DOE will approve the next stage of funding by the end of the month, which will clear the way for installation of the optimized demonstration plant engineered by Syncron.
"Rare earths are vital for the future, and why we collectively have embarked upon the journey to develop a domestic rare earth source from the Bear Lodge Project utilizing the processing and separation technology in the demonstration project," said Blue. "This important project, supported by the Department of Energy, will demonstrate the scalability of the technology to commercial scale, which is required to make a significant contribution to U.S requirements."
Rare Elements expects this demonstration of commercial scalability to begin in a few short months.
"Following our planned construction period, we could see plant operations begin as early as summer 2024 – moving us one step closer to our goal of creating a secure, domestic source of separated and refined rare earths," said Berg.