New opportunity for coal to support the energy transition Metal Tech News - December 20, 2023i
The only rare earths mine in the United States – accounting for about 16% of the world's rare earths production – is the Mountain Pass mine in California's Mojave Desert, operated by MP Materials.
The mine is partly owned by Chinese interests, which export most of what is produced out of the country for processing. China controls 91% of refining activity, 87% of oxide separation and 94% of magnet production, as recently reported in the Wall Street Journal, a supply concentration several countries have been working to break with domestic production of their own.
In the U.S., this effort includes looking at coal and the byproducts of more than a century of coal-fired power as a future source of the suite of 15 rare earth elements needed for a broad range of industrial, high-tech, and household goods.
While many are getting out of the coal business, savvy companies and government-sponsored projects are exploring ways to develop clean energy projects on current and former coal and petroleum extraction sites.
In April of this year, the Biden administration set aside $450 million to advance clean energy projects on current and former coal mines, giving special attention to those providing economic opportunities for coal communities.
Legacy mines, tailing storage, coal ash and acid mine drainage are the latest options being explored all over North America as alternative feedstock for extracting various minerals in demand by energy transition technologies.
In 2011, Kentucky-based Ramaco Resources acquired the inactive Brook coal mine in Wyoming, near the town of Sheridan at the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains. By May 2023, following more than a year and a half of core drilling and independent analysis, large deposits of magnetic rare earth elements were discovered on the property.
The mine, which has been dormant since roughly 1930, presents an exciting opportunity for Wyoming. The Cowboy State, which has produced about 47% of the country's coal, is now looking at the prospect of providing a long-term, dependable domestic source for critical minerals, bolstering the community and creating jobs in the new green economy.
The Brook mine rare earths discovery was made in partnership with the Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Lab (NETL) and poses a potential solution to undersupply in the U.S. as growth from electric vehicle and renewable power sectors increase demand.
Following eighteen months of core drilling and independent chemical analysis, NETL researchers and Ramaco have been convinced that the Brook mine property may contain the largest unconventional deposit of world-class magnetic, heavy, and intermediate rare earth element (HREE, MREE) accumulations.
"They were frankly shocked that they had found concentrations and mostly concentrations in heavy rare earths that were higher than they'd found any place else in the world except outside of Western China and certainly higher than anything they've found in the US," Ramaco CEO Randy Atkins said.
Most rare earths are found in conventional hard mineral deposits, which makes them both difficult and expensive to mine and process. Alternately, the Brook mine ranks as one of the highest concentrations of HREEs and MREEs discovered, with initial estimates at about 28% of deposit concentrations.
The Brook mine's deposits are low in radioactive materials and are easier and more economical to extract from the soft, shallow clay and strata sandwiching coal seams.
"Our approach is to use the commodity as a low-cost carbon feedstock to make high-value advanced carbon products and materials that we call 'coal to products.' We have coined the phrase 'carbon ore' to refer to coal used in this manner," Atkins said in a testimony to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in 2021.
Ramaco is a longtime producer of high-quality, low-cost metallurgical coal – a crucial precursor in the creation of blast furnace steel – with operations in central and southern West Virginia and southwestern Virginia.
"I began to explore alternative uses of coal. We had started our permit mine planning and it became apparent to me that even though we were going to continue on the trajectory of planning and permitting the mine that the idea of opening a brand new thermal coal mine was a difficult proposition to justify deploying a lot of capital toward," said Atkins.
Having completed an eight-year permitting process, Ramaco is now ready to mine. Roughly a third of the total 15,800-acre area has been sampled; further drilling and testing will determine the ultimate size and character of the property not yet assessed.
Ramaco is also working with the University of Kentucky, testing various types of rare earth conversions from coal to determine best practices.
"As a result of this, we can instead probably look at the coal almost as a byproduct of mining for the rare earths because the value is all going be of course in the rare earths and not in coal," Atkins said. "I've kind of been the only one waving the flag for the third leg of the stool, which is to use coal for alternative purposes, and I think it has a great future in a more technologic use than what people have looked at before."