North Dakota Wants to Lead the Nation in Rare Earth Production
But first, researchers need to figure out a good, consistent way to extract the minerals used in electronic devices and develop a supply chain that supports the operation. That's going to take time and money.
The U.S. Department of Energy last week announced $16 million in funding to establish domestic supply chains of rare earth elements and critical minerals, aimed at reducing our dependence on foreign sources for these important materials. Rare earths are essential in the manufacture of modern electronic devices including applications in national defense and clean energy technologies. Half of the $16 million will support research conducted at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks where they will be looking at ways to recover and refine rare earth elements from coal mine waste.
Governing recently spoke with John Kay, a principal engineer and 28-year veteran at the EERC. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Governing: What are rare earth elements and critical minerals, and why are they important?
John Kay: Rare earth elements and critical minerals are essential to our economy and national security. They are used in practically every electronic device known to the world. But the biggest motivation for doing this is national security. We don't want to be in a situation where other countries can hold the industry hostage.
Rare earths can't be substituted with something else. That's what makes them critical. And rare earth elements aren't actually rare. The name is kind of a misnomer. They are dispersed within the ore they're found in. You can't see them. They have to be extracted somehow.
Governing: Do we have the ability to extract rare earths from ore?
John Kay: At this point, if we dig the ore up out of the ground, we still don't have a good, consistent way to extract these minerals. We would have to ship it to China because they can do it. And then it comes back. We're trying to take other countries out of the chain altogether. And that's what's going to take time, as we develop all those pieces.
A lot of this stuff, theoretically, is understood very well. We know what it takes to do the extraction. But the challenge is actually doing it. When the U.S. and other countries began to embrace the world economy, a lot of these jobs left and that knowledge left too. And so, some of this stuff, we need to reinvent. We have to learn again how to properly do it. It's one thing to know book learning. And it's another thing to know application. It's the application we have to relearn.
Governing: Do the Chinese have an advantage over us in the production of rare earths?
John Kay: The concentrations of rare earths in China are much greater than they are here, so it's easier for them to do the extraction. We're working with less material that's more dispersed than what the Chinese have. The other thing is the Chinese government does not have the same level of concern for environmental responsibility that we do. We're trying to do it in a far more responsible way. And so that also introduces a level of challenge and sophistication that the Chinese seem to be ignoring.
Governing: How soon can North Dakota expect to benefit from its rare earth elements and critical minerals?
John Kay: The state government, all the way up to the governor, they're all on board with this. They think it's a very good idea because it's developing a new industry within the state. It's helping the nation. It's providing domestic resource supply. And so they want to start right away. The governor is always asking us. “Why don't you have shovels in the ground? Why aren't you digging this stuff out?”
I would love to, but it takes time to develop these things. In order to have a full supply chain and complete operation … you're probably talking 10 years. However, there are aspects of this that we would really like to get going within the next two years. Right now we import well over 80 percent of our rare earths and critical minerals. And the vast majority of them come from China.
Governing: Are there enough rare earths in the U.S. to satisfy future demand?
John Kay: No. And here's why. As they become more available, people just invent more things. We'll never have enough because consumer demand will always be wanting more and more. That's how you end up with smart coffee makers and refrigerators that hook into the Internet. I mean, do we really need that? I don't know.
We're probably never going to be completely self-reliant. But what we can do is get ourselves to a point to where events that are happening on the other side of the planet aren't radically impacting what we're wanting to do here.
Governing: What becomes of the ore after the minerals are extracted?
John Kay: We won’t dig up tons of material, get a few grams, and just dump the rest. Some of that other material can go into making building materials, roof tiles, siding and things like that. We're looking at how to utilize as much of it as we can while minimizing waste.
Governing: Will North Dakota’s vast coal deposits continue to benefit the state economy?
John Kay: As we move into a future where the use of coal to produce electricity is dropping, these new technologies provide a way to continue to use coal responsibly. And the state can still enjoy the taxes it receives from doing that. Existing jobs will remain in place, but we're also creating new jobs. And these are technical jobs. Good paying, consistent jobs that will attract more people to the state.