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State, Campbell County pursue rare earth opportunities

The date of: 2020-07-06
viewed: 4

soure:Wyoming Tribune

GILLETTE — As flagging coal and oil revenues continue to implode the Wyoming budget by hundreds of millions of dollars, momentum is growing for a more down-to-earth solution.

A push to resurrect the nation’s ability to produce and refine rare earth elements has made some people wonder whether that also could be the phoenix that rises from the ashes of the Powder River Basin’s legacy coal mining industry.

More specifically, from the ash produced by area coal-fired power plants.

Typically a waste product of burning coal to make electricity, coal ash also contains rare earths, which are elements with unique properties that are essential for many technologies like electronics, health care equipment and national defense.

For decades, extracting and refining those elements in a cost-effective way has been out of reach in Wyoming and the United States.

A push in recent years is trying to change that — and a step toward making that happen came this week with the announcement of a $1.62 million, three-year project to put a pilot plant to extract rare earth elements from coal ash in Campbell County.

Part of a larger $30 million federal Department of Energy initiative to develop domestic production and refining of rare earth elements, the local project puts Campbell County at ground zero researching the potential from coal ash, said Campbell County Commissioner Rusty Bell.

“This shows there’s finally a focus on a lot of these things and finally, after all these years, the Department of Energy is putting a footprint down here in Campbell County, where a lot of the country’s Btu’s (energy) come from already,” he said.

Researchers at the National Energy Technology Laboratory have developed technologies and methods to extract rare earth elements from coal ash and will build a pilot-scale production facility at the Advanced Carbon Products Innovation Center, which is under development in Campbell County.

The goal is to demonstrate that producing rare earth elements from coal ash is economically viable, Bell said.

Finding another way to generate money from coal production could be key to extending the mining life of the basin, Bell said. The Powder River Basin coal industry has seen production and profitability nosedive over the past decade and sparked five of its largest producers into bankruptcy.

“We mine better than anybody in the world, so if we’re going to mine rare earths, why not do it here?” he said, adding there’s potential to build another economy around rare earths.

“We need to not only mine them here, we need to process here, manufacture here,” Bell said.

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