Upton, WY, Critical to Rare Earth Element Sourcing
16 Jun 2023
The small town of Upton, WY, has found itself amid an international race to secure a supply of raw materials to match the ever-increasing dependence on high-tech products, national security systems and alternative energy production. The Colorado-based company, Rare Element Resources, has recently received U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) approval to take the next step in its Bear Lodge Project, an initiative to develop Rare Earth Elements (REE) necessary for an ever-increasing number of uses.
The next step is building a demonstration-scale plant in Upton to prove the commercial feasibility of the technology to separate and recover REE from a mineralization deposit just north of Sundance. The DOE provided final design approval in December 2022, with the next waypoint being necessary licensing from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, expected in July 2023. Construction at an 8.2-acre site at the Upton Logistics Center is anticipated to begin two to three months following receipt of that license and be completed within eight to ten months. Operation at the plant with the deposit material should extend another eight to ten months. Expected marketable products would be high-strength, permanent magnet materials and heavy rare earth concentrate.
Direct employment at the plant is expected to be between 10 and 15 workers. Assuming successful proven commercial feasibility, Upton could be the site of a commercial facility. The potential exists for some of the workforce and equipment from the demonstration plant to be incorporated into the commercial facility.
Critical to national strategy
Securing a dependable, long-term, domestic supply of REE is critical to the country’s strategic goals in defense, energy, technology and more.
“If we as a country seek to achieve a future with less carbon, we have to secure our supply chain, not just the end processes,” said Brent Berg, President and CEO of Rare Element Resources. “The Bear Lodge Project and the Upton Demonstration Plant are a step in that direction.”
REE are critical necessities to allow for the continuing path of high-technologies possible and are expected to experience significant demand growth and price support. The classification comprises seventeen chemical elements like lanthanides, scandium and yttrium with unique magnetic and luminescent properties that can optimize the performance and production of various high-tech products and systems, like:
- Electronics, such as screen technology and reduced circuitry of smartphones and computers.
- Green energies that support carbon emissions reduction goals, like wind turbines and electric vehicles.
- Critical defense and telecommunication systems in guidance systems and satellite communications.
- Medical equipment technologies like laser scalpels and MRI machines.
Bear Lodge Project
The Bear Lodge Project has progressed through several successful stages. Its potential begins with the tremendous quantity and quality of REE mineralization north of Sundance. Pilot studies performed in 2020 by Rare Element Resources and its partners proved a recovery/separation process to produce the first high-grade, separated REE product from Bear Lodge material at a lower cost and more environmentally sound manner than traditional methods.
The next step is to prove the technology commercially and determine full-scale operation requirements. Rare Element Resources centered on the nearby Upton Logistics Center as a logical site to build a demonstration plant. Construction on an Upton Demonstration Plant is expected to cost approximately $44 million. The DOE awarded $21.9 million for the project in October 2021 and the Wyoming Energy Authority (WEA) previously announced a $4.4 million grant.
In a November 21, 2022, press release, Berg stated, “We are very pleased that the WEA, upon the approval of the University of Wyoming Energy Resources Council, recognizes the critical importance of this timely project for the trajectory of the rare earth industry in the United States. Wyoming’s financial support exemplifies its commitment to critical materials, specifically rare earth element production. We cannot imagine a more favorable location for this important project and look forward to working with the WEA and others in the state of Wyoming, including the University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources, for many years to come. As we progress our demonstration plant through licensing, construction, and operations in the near-term, we will plan for the advancement of a commercial-scale plant to support the Bear Lodge deposit in the future.” Mr. Berg added, “We understand, as does Wyoming, that our project will serve as a cornerstone for the rare earth industry in Wyoming and America while providing a venue for worker training in rare earth processing and separation.”
With the continued reliance on high technology for defense, energy and other applications expected to increase, securing a dependable and cost-effective supply of REE is more critical than ever. Today, the U.S. has just one active REE mine, sourcing much of REE from China. In 2022, China had 85% of the world’s refined supply of REE products and 92% of the global magnet products. Nationally, President Biden’s administration has stated that developing U.S. sources of REE is a matter of national security. The U.S. Congress has approved more than $800 million to fund research into developing a domestic supply chain. The DOE’s $21.9 million commitment toward the demonstration plant in Upton reflects that dedication.
Northeastern Wyoming offers success
The Bear Lodge Project offers significant potential to be a major North American source of REE. Beyond the presence of one of the highest-grade deposits of REE worldwide, northeastern Wyoming offers numerous advantages to support a major ongoing source in the supply chain.
As one of the historically best mining districts in the world, northeastern Wyoming has access to major interstates and transcontinental rail, along with existing reliable infrastructure, like cost-effective electricity, natural gas and water, to support the project. The established industrial area has an available and talented workforce with years of experience in natural resource development.
The inherent advantages of northeastern Wyoming will help Rare Element Resources operate the Upton Demonstration Plant as a zero-discharge facility. Most of the chemicals and water used at the plant would be recycled to eliminate discharges, helping reduce raw material and environmental waste handling costs. Tailings created from the operation would be de-watered, neutralized and disposed of at a tailings facility adjacent to the plant. Thorium, a naturally occurring radioactive metal found at trace levels in the mineralization, would be isolated and transported to an off-site, licensed disposal facility.
Optimism for project potential
Berg is optimistic about the demonstration plant's potential, with a significant reason being the people and infrastructure in Wyoming.
“The people of Wyoming are visionaries who know how to look to the future,” he said. “With the significant presence of minerals, Wyoming can be a Rare Earth Element hub.”
See the Rare Element Resources website for more information on the Bear Lodge Project.
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