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Berkeley Pit could be a source of strategically vital rare-earth elements

The date of: 2023-10-09
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Good for next to nothing but attracting hapless geese and sightseer gawks.

That’s been the Berkeley Pit.

There are few places in this wide world where voyeurs pay good money for the privilege of observing a body of toxic water.

The Berkeley Pit has long been a liability for the Butte community and the entities responsible for its present and future. Those entities include Atlantic Richfield and Montana Resources.

Schemes have floated in years past to extract minerals from the pit’s toxic stew but nothing has yielded results promising either commercial or strategic value.

Now, early stage work underway at Montana Resources to retrieve rare-earth elements from pit water seems to be gaining traction. Partners include West Virginia University, the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology and the U.S. Department of Defense.

On Tuesday morning, Robert Olson, a representative from the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, was on site at the Montana Resources mine.

“This is an important project,” Olson said. “This is a vital, next-step process.”

John Quaranta, Ph.D., an associate professor at West Virginia University, was also on site.

Nearby, workers handled a hose transporting slurry from the Horseshoe Bend Water Treatment Facility at Montana Resources. The treatment plant had adjusted the pH for some of the Berkeley Pit water to facilitate the precipitation of rare-earth elements. West Virginia University’s patented process separates the rare-earth metals from nonvaluable metals.

The slurry is captured in 24 geotubes — which are large, black bags — designed to collect wet pre-concentrate and allow water to escape so that solids bearing rare-earth elements remain.

The solids recovered will go into barrels and be shipped to West Virginia University, where the rare-earth elements will be extracted and purified.

Paul Ziemkiewicz, Ph.D, is director of the Water Research Institute at West Virginia University and has long been involved in efforts to retrieve metals in acid mine drainage from coal mines.

The university has received $3 million in funding from the Department of Defense and $8 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to move forward with developing technologies to extract, separate and refine rare-earth metals.

Ziemkiewicz said four such metals in Berkeley Pit water are among the most marketable: neodymium, terbium, dysprosium and praseodymium.

The refining process is key.

The United States needs access to rare-earth elements for commercial production of smartphones, digital cameras, wind turbines, computer hard drives, LED lights, flat screen TVs, electric cars and much more.

The Department of Defense needs rare-earth elements for a hundreds of uses, including lasers, precision-guided weapons and magnets for motors.

China has dominated the market for rare-earth elements.

Such elements aren’t necessarily rare, but they can be challenging to mine, separate into usable materials and refine. For now, rare-earth metals mined in the U.S. must still go to China for refining, a reality that helps create a sense of urgency about addressing strategic domestic deficits.

A Rand Corp. essay in March observed that the U.S. must accelerate efforts to mine and refine rare-earth metals.

“Processing rare-earths and other critical materials — not just digging them out of the ground — is the real bottleneck,” the essay said.

“By one estimate, every F-35 Lightning II fighter jet has around 920 pounds of rare-earth elements built into its engines and electronics,” the corporation has reported.

“All of which makes China’s near-total domination of the rare earth market a matter of economic and national security concern,” Rand said.

During the 20{sup}th{/sup} century, underground mining in Butte provided strategically vital copper for both World War I and World War II.

Now, the Berkeley Pit, where open-pit mining began in the 1950s, could play a similar role with rare-earth metals, said Mark Thompson, vice president of environmental affairs for Montana Resources.

“We’ve known for quite a while that the Berkeley Pit has high concentrations of rare-earth metals,” he said. “This project is the first step toward processing it. It’s very exciting.”

Ziemkiewicz said researchers should know within six to eight months whether the extraction and pre-concentrate process at Montana Resources is economically viable.

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