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Berkeley Pit set to become source of rare earth elements

The date of: 2023-09-12
viewed: 0
source:Elko Daily


After being a source of copper for many years, the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana now holds a contaminated lake which has long been a source of strife. But the water in the Pit has now been shown to be the source of something much more positive: rare earth elements.
West Virginia University has received $3 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Defense to establish a resource recovery site at the Berkeley Pit, along with two sites at coal mines in West Virginia.
Rare earth elements like neodymium, dysprosium, cerium, lanthanum, yttrium, praseodymium and europium have a wide range of uses and are key ingredients for technologies such as electric and hybrid cars, smartphones, lightbulbs, Special Forces gear, and the nation’s missile guidance systems.
This isn’t the first time Butte has been a source of metals useful in national defense.
“The Berkeley Pit literally got us through two world wars,” said Mark Thompson, vice president of environmental affairs for Montana Resources.
During World Wars I and II, the demand for copper ramped up for use in bullets and other weaponry, and Butte’s mines were able to supply it.
Rare earths have historically been sourced from countries like China, which has had a hold on the rare earth market for years but has recently seen a decrease due to extensive mining. Still, China continues to dominate the global market, accounting for more than two-thirds of the world’s rare earth metal production, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Domestic rare earths
Rare earths have been a popular topic in the U.S. government over the last couple of years. Specifically, there has been a lot of talk about sourcing rare earths domestically.
Enter Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, which operates out of West Virginia University. Ziemkiewicz has also been involved with advising on acid mine drainage from the Berkeley Pit for approximately 25 years, so he has relationships with hydrogeologists from the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology and Montana Resources.
Ziemkiewicz’s journey with extracting rare-earths from local sources started in 2015, when the U.S. Department of Energy sent out a solicitation for proposals regarding extraction of rare earths from coal-related wastes.
He said it occurred to him that rare earths could possibly be found in acid mine drainage, so he asked the DOE if the proposal would be within the scope.
“Sure enough, enriched in rare earths,” Ziemkiewicz said.
In 2020, he asked Ted Duaime, hydrogeologist at the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, to send him a sample of the Berkeley Pit water for analysis at the lab at West Virginia University. The lab found the Pit had 10 times the amount of rare earths found in coal drainage.
Duaime said although it was as recent as 2020 that he sent the Berkeley Pit water sample to Ziemkiewicz, the lab at the Bureau of Mines has known for as long as two decades that the Berkeley Pit water has elevated concentrations of neodymium.
“So we’ve known they’ve always been there,” Duaime said. “It’s just trying to get people that have the money to come forward and say, ‘OK, you know, let’s look at this in more detail.’ And West Virginia was able to give us just a much more complete list of all the rare earths that are there.”
Samples of Berkeley Pit water taken at a depth of 166 feet showed elevated levels of several rare earths, the top four being cerium, neodymium, yttrium and lanthanum. There were lesser concentrations of gadolinium and dysprosium, according to a graph provided by Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology Hydrogeologist John Metesh.
Metesh helped complete an application that ultimately secured a grant from the United States Army Research Laboratory that has funded seven projects in the Bureau of Mines, and eight in Montana Technological University’s metallurgical and materials engineering department.
The projects through the Bureau of Mines include looking for rare earths in abandoned mine sites, coal wastes, large waste sites and a few other locations.
In 2021, Ziemkiewicz and his team at West Virginia University put in a grant application to the U.S. Department of Energy with a proposal to test and demonstrate the process of extracting rare earths from the Berkeley Pit. That proposal wasn’t funded, but the WVU team then submitted a similar application for $3 million to the U.S. Department of Defense in early 2023. This summer they received word that this grant request has been funded.
“This funding allows significant broadening of our feedstock supply to include acid mine drainage from Appalachian coal mines as well as hard rock mines in the West,” Ziemkiewicz said. “This project also focuses on feedstock supply to a central rare earth elements and critical minerals refinery by including large as well as small AMD sources.
“Hard rock mining sites such as copper mines tend to collect AMD on a much larger scale than coal mines and, often, the REE/CM concentrations are substantially higher. This means that relatively few hard rock AMD sites can generate very significant volumes of high grade preconcentrate.”
The Berkeley Pit produces about 5,500 gallons of AMD per minute, Ziemkiewicz said, while the coal mine plant at Bismarck, West Virginia, which is operated by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, treats up to 1,000 gallons per minute. At the other end of the scale, the capacity at the site at Fola, West Virginia would be about 100 gallons per minute.
The project team will also collaborate with Continental Heritage at Fola. Much of West Virginia’s coal AMD-based REE/CM feedstock is currently produced at small, remote discharges like Fola with flow rates in the range of 10 to 200 gallons per minute.
“Together, they add up to a lot of potential REE/CM,” Ziemkiewicz said. “We need to demonstrate that it can be done at scale while producing clean water and a revenue stream for the operators.”
Ziemkiewicz explained the team is using a patented WVU process that will recover preconcentrate that can be transported to a central refinery for processing to REE/CM products for the domestic market.
Ready to get startedThompson said now that the funding for rare earth extraction is in place, they are doing testing at the Berkeley Pit this summer.
“We will use the various stages at the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Plant, which was built in 2003, to selectively precipitate the REE by manipulating the pH of the Berkeley Pit water and making a rare earth rich sludge,” Thompson said. “The sludge will passively be dewatered to a transportable moisture and sent to West Virginia for processing.”
Thompson said Montana Resources, which operates an open pit copper and molybdenum mine next to the Berkeley Pit and is involved in the ongoing, long-term project of cleaning up the water in the Pit, will make many contributions to the rare earth extraction project, including the use of the water treatment plant, work done by the operators, maintenance work, lime, reagents, equipment, a laydown area, Berkeley Pit water delivery, and power. This will all count as a match to the grant.
The process which will be used to extract rare earths from the Berkeley Pit is not unlike what Montana Resources already does at its Horseshoe Bend Plant to get the water to drinking standards. It’s a multi-phase process that involves changing the pH-levels of the water multiple times to extract contaminants.
To extract the rare-earth metals, the treatment plant will use slightly different pH-levels and possibly experiment with additional levels to get the most out of the water, Ziemkiewicz said.
“The process being proposed by West Virginia University is not dissimilar from the process that we use anyways to treat the Berkeley water, so it’s happening anyway,” Thompson said. “And I’m comfortable that we can do this and that we can sustain this.”
He added that he’s excited about the prospect of the Berkeley Pit becoming an asset when it’s been known for so long as a liability.
Based on previous, small-scale tests, Ziemkiewicz expects the Berkeley Pit and the two sites in West Virginia to produce a uniform feedstock to which a grade/specification and value can be assigned.
“This means the central refinery can purchase feedstock from suppliers and process it with minimal adjustment related to the source of the concentrate,” he said. “Nearly all of the infrastructure needed to install our technology is in place and operational at each site.”
The sites will be continuously operated, Ziemkiewicz added, and the WVU Rare Earth Extraction Facility will evaluate the preconcentrate.
The WVU research team also recently earned $8 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to undertake a study to design and evaluate the economics of a full-scale central refinery to produce REE/CM products using AMD-based feedstock.
“Our team at WVU and Virginia Tech, the West Virginia DEP and our industry partners have worked hard to bring this concept to successful pilot scale testing,” Ziemkiewicz said. “Thanks to the continued support of our congressional delegation through DOE and now, DOD, we will push this novel source of REE/CM out of the lab, toward commercial reality.”
Montana’s congressional delegation have also been active supporters of the production of rare earth elements and critical minerals from Montana. Sen. Jon Tester’s office has been working with the Bureau of Mines, Montana Tech and Ziemkiewicz to advance the extraction and use of rare earths from the Berkeley Pit.
“Boosting research and development of rare earths in Butte is one of my top priorities and will ensure that the Richest Hill on Earth continues to create good paying jobs, supports our national defense interests, and lowers costs for consumers,” Tester said in a statement to the Montana Standard.
Sen. Steve Daines co-sponsored a bill in June 2022 — the Homeland Acceleration of Recovering Deposits and Renewing Onshore Critical Keystones Act, or the HARD ROCK Act — that aims to wean the country from dependence on China for rare-earth elements by working with allies to develop new supply chains. 
Montana Standard reporter Kasey Faur contributed to this story. 



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