CASPER — Wyoming’s nascent rare earth elements industry may be inching closer to commercialization.
Rare Element Resources, the mineral exploration and development company behind the Bear Lodge mining project in northeastern Wyoming, announced Saturday that it had secured funding for a demonstration-scale separation and processing plant in Upton, nine miles from its proposed rare earths mine.
Rare earths are key components of technologies like cell phones, computers, televisions and batteries, and are used in industrial processes like petroleum refining and glass making. Because wind turbines, solar panels and electric cars require them, too, the expansion of clean energy technologies is driving up demand for rare earth elements.
Though Wyoming boasts substantial deposits of the 17 rare earth elements, which are actually abundant in nature but don’t often occur in large enough quantities to mine affordably, the economics and environmental impacts of extraction and processing have deterred U.S. development. But with the support of the federal government, several rare earth companies are now looking to establish domestic processing for the first time in decades.
After receiving a $21.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, Rare Element Resources raised an additional $25.1 million from private investors. It expects the combined sum to cover the costs of designing, licensing, engineering and constructing the demonstration plant.
The company has already tested its separation and processing methods at small-scale pilot plants in Canada and Germany.
“To envision a pilot plant, I tell people, OK, look at something that you can put in your garage,” said George Byers, a consultant for the company. “For a demonstration-scale plant, look at something you can stick in a small high school gym. And for the full-scale plant that we’re going to build there, it’s going to be like the small schoolhouse tacked onto the gym.”
The demonstration plant in Upton is essentially a stepping stone, intended to make sure all the technology will work at an intermediate size before it’s employed at a commercial scale. But if it works, Rare Element Resources hopes to build its commercial separation and processing facility at the same site.
The company aims to begin operations at the demonstration plant by mid-2025. It hasn’t yet set a timeline for the full-scale facility or the Bear Lodge mine.
“We’re going to let the results from the demo plant dictate our next steps,” Byers said.
The demonstration plant will use ore that’s already been recovered and stockpiled as part of the Bear Lodge project, the company said. Eventually, though, it hopes that the commercial plant will be able not only to process materials from its own mines, but to extract rare earths from less-concentrated sources like coal and coal ash.
While many rare earths are present at the proposed mines, the company will focus primarily on the high-value magnet components neodymium and praseodymium, along with other rare earth elements like samarium, europium and gadolinium, Byers said.
If the demonstration plant is successful, the company will have to secure a number of additional local, state and federal permits — including approval from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Forest Service — before it can scale up operations.
“We’ve got some other things to do,” Byers said. “But getting the funding and all finalized — and we were oversubscribed on that — we will now be able to undertake construction of the demo plant.”