Mining People: new mines needed for green energy tech

0:02 / 8:27 Donald Swartz, CEO American Rare Earths few weeks after coming on board as CEO of American Rare Earths, Donald Swartz says it’s been a whirlwind as the company transitions to focus on its big mining project in Wyoming.

That’s also how one might describe the explosion of interest in developing rare earth mines in North America, where concerns about the risk of almost exclusively Chinese-controlled materials have spurred a focus on sourcing critical materials closer to home.

“You can really see the macro factors that are driving it, and it’s really one of the few things in Washington, D.C., that I see that has bipartisan support,” says Swartz, whose Denver based company is transitioning from its roots as an Australian exploration company to U.S.-based company focused on developing mines in Wyoming.

 “The Republicans are supportive because they see the need to re-shore not only for jobs but strategic and national security reasons, and the Democrats are largely supportive because [magnet metals] are really what drives electric vehicles, windmills, and the green energy transition.”

American Rare Earths, whose Halleck Creek project in Wyoming was listed as #5 in a recent ranking of the world’s top 10 rare earth projects, is among those claiming that its project has the greatest potential. It’s the only one in the United States on the list, which also includes five projects in Canada, two in Greenland, and two in Africa.

Rare earth elements – so named not because of their rarity in nature but because of their relatively sparse presence in the geology where they’re found – have received a lot of attention in recent years as the high-tech electronics they used to make have grown in popularity.

The list includes 17 metals, and efforts to find new sources of these have been focused in two areas: finding ores containing them which can be mined and processed, and investigating other potential sources, such as industrial waste streams and product recycling.

The experts say that, although there’s a lot to be gained from innovation in the latter, meeting the demand for these materials will ultimately require a lot of new mines.

In Wyoming, American Rare Earths plans to mine just two of these elements: neodymium and praseodymium, two metals used to produce the magnet metals in batteries for products like electric cars. But other companies are exploring potential sources for all of them.

While still gathering data at Halleck Creek, Swartz – whose background includes developing coal mines in the U.S. and Canada – points to the already-developed infrastructure and mining-friendly environment in Wyoming as factors that could help the rare earths mining project get off the ground quickly.

“I spent a lot of time in the PRB [Wyoming’s Powder River Basin], and you have a lot of the mining capability, not only with the workforce but capital, equipment, parts, and pieces that can be redeployed into rare earth mining,” he says. “And the mining is very comparable with what you see in Wyoming with the kind of truck-and-shovel open pit mining.”

He says he’s also hopeful that the U.S. government will help pave the way for the development of rare earth mines with a streamlined permitting process due to the critical nature of the materials to be produced.

The timeline to U.S.-based production of rare earths, he says, will depend a lot on the length of the permitting process that companies face to start mining. The development of U.S.- based processing facilities, such as the one planned in Texas, will also be key.

In August it was announced that an Australia-based company, Lynas Rare Earths – currently the world’s top rare earths producer outside China – has been contracted by the U.S. Department of Defense to build a facility – and, as part of the deal, will receive a quarter-billion-dollar investment from the U.S. government.

Expected to open in 2026, it will process material from western Australia but is expected to ultimately serve both government and commercial customers. Currently just one U.S. mine produces rare earths: the Mountain Pass Mine in California, which has been called out for sending material to China for processing. The Las Vegas based company that operates the mine is also getting an infusion of federal money to develop its U.S.-based processing capabilities.

At American Rare Earths, Swartz says that in addition to Halleck Creek, the company also has another property its exploring north of the site for potential future development of battery metals mining. These materials are needed, he says – and someone has got to produce them. He says it’s an exciting space to be working in.

“You can see the growth of electrification of really all things….Everything is getting more efficient, and as they get more efficient, they use more and more [of the magnet metals],” says Swartz. “Some of this is absolutely going to have to take place, and we think we’re the ones that are going to be well-positioned to do it.”


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