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Could North Dakota begin mining rare earth minerals soon?

The date of: 2023-02-15
viewed: 2

Rare earth elements or minerals are a group of 15-17 elements referred to as the lanthanide series in the periodic table of elements.

But why are they important?

These metals have unusual fluorescent, conductive, and magnetic properties.

“They’re always found together. You don’t really find them separately. So, in North Dakota, we have all of those groups and then we have a number of other critical minerals: germanium, and gallium. They’re used in semiconductors. Those semiconductor metals, germanium and gallium in our lignite, is where I think the key opportunity lies,” said UND Senior Research Manager for Critical Minerals, Nolan Theaker.

These minerals however are not mined in North Dakota, but they are mined on an industrial scale in other countries.

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So, why are we so hesitant on mining them here?

Critical mining minerals are defined by the U.S. government as a mineral required for national or economic security, which are found in restricted environments with limited competitors that are vulnerable to disruption.

What are we doing today with rare minerals under North Dakota’s surface?

“It’s primarily China and Russia that mine the vast majority of those elements. There is some mining that’s done in the United States for the rare earths in California, but the processing is still done in China. And then in the germanium and gallium, there’s a little bit produced in the United States, but it’s primarily mined in China and Russia,” said Theaker.

According to the European Union, China and Russia run the world’s market in both germanium and gallium at almost 90% of the market. But that was not always the case. Back in the 1980’s, the United States used to be the global producer of rare earth minerals. Then in the 1990’s, a number of policies were put in place on the federal level — especially focusing on the environment — and mining these elements stopped almost overnight.

So, hypothetically speaking, what if we were to mine here in the U.S. again?

“We do look at how we can mine these rare earth minerals in the U.S. How can we mine them where they are? How can we best recover them, and how can we best make products with them? UND’s research on rare earth minerals is mainly focused primarily on how to extract them from a resource. We’re looking at lignite. We found significant quantities of rare earth minerals, germanium and gallium in the North Dakota lignite. So, what we’ve been working on is developing a technology to extract those minerals. Then, UND wants to recover them into pure form that would then be used for manufacturing,” said Theaker.

How foreseeable would this be in our near future?

“The Department of Energy just sent out where we’re looking at building a commercial demonstration facility. It will be a reality over the next three years. This would be able to produce about 300 to 1000 tons of rare earths per year. The University of North Dakota did apply for the solicitation with DOE. We are looking to produce this, and we have great industrial support and state support for trying to make this a reality. This 300 to 1000 tons per year of rare earth minerals doesn’t sound like a huge amount for a big commercial venture, but the U.S. currently only intakes somewhere between five and 20,000 tons of rare earths per year. So, this is actually a pretty significant piece of that pie,” said Theaker.

Theaker says by focusing on active mines, and coal base mining –lignite for example– this can be a reality for the U.S and North Dakota within only a few years.

Our state could provide a very significant portion of the U.S.’s demand that we are currently relying on other countries for.

Rare earth minerals can be found in almost all our electronics, clean energy devices, aerospace machines, and cars. 

Manufacturing plants across North Dakota also use permanent magnets — which is the single largest and most important end use for rare earth minerals, accounting for 29% of the materials.

And again, according to the state, these minerals can be found in North Dakota.

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