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UND awarded $8 million Department of Energy grant to study rare earth material extraction

People working in laboratory
The project will provide an opportunity to research the viability of processing rare earth materials for domestic consumption. UND archival photo.

Research is “next step toward commercializing technology in North Dakota,” says project director and UND engineering professor Dan Laudal.


The U.S. Department of Energy on Tuesday announced that UND has been awarded an $8 million grant to research the potential for extracting rare earth materials from coal and its byproducts for domestic use in industrial applications.

UND is one of two grant awardees – the other being the University of West Virginia. The grant is part of the Biden administration’s Investing in America initiative.

Dan Laudal, research professor at UND’s Institute of Energy Studies and project manager of the study, said the $8 million grant will fund the first phase of research, which will examine the economic feasibility of constructing a facility to extract and process rare earth materials in Grand Forks.

“The first phase, which we hope to start this summer, is going to entail what’s called a front-end engineering and design study, along with the development of a business plan,” said Laudal. “It’s the next step toward commercializing this technology in North Dakota.”

Dan Laudal
Daniel Laudal

The project will provide an opportunity to research the viability of processing rare earth materials for domestic consumption. According to Laudal, around 80% of the worldwide market for rare earth materials is controlled by China.

“The major motivation behind this program that the DOE has been pushing for the last decade or so is trying to secure a domestic supply chain,” said Laudal. “Coal and coal byproducts have been identified as one potential source for these metals, and that’s what we’ve been working on for the past few years – specifically around lignites and related lignite materials.”

Laudal said rare earth materials are used in applications, from consumer electronics and military defense systems to renewable energy components.

“These are things that are growing in demand as a consequence of the energy transition, as well as the electronics boom,” said Laudal. “They’re used in almost everything in our daily lives.”

The engineering design work of the study will be conducted by faculty at UND’s Institute of Energy Studies, located at its College of Engineering and Mines, with the help of a number of technology partners in the private sector. Researchers will use UND’s drilling and completions lab – located near the North Dakota Mill – to conduct research on lignite extraction.

According to Laudal, the lab has the ability to process one half ton, or 500 kilograms, of lignites per hour.

Following the initial phase of research, the DOE will choose between the two awardees for continuation to phase two – construction of a $250 million facility to process rare earth materials.

“Today’s funding will support a first-in-the-nation facility that will convert legacy fossil fuel waste into a domestic source of critical minerals needed to strengthen our clean energy supply chains,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said via a DOE press release on the subject. “President Biden’s Investing in America agenda is helping reduce our over-reliance on adversarial nations and position the country as a global manufacturing leader – while supporting communities that have helped power our nation for generations.”

In a press release, U.S. Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said “along with their industry partners and the U.S. Department of Energy, the University of North Dakota is on the cutting edge of our energy future. This award builds on the group’s efforts to research, find and affordably extract rare earth elements and minerals in North Dakota. The significance of developing this domestic supply chain for national and energy security cannot be overstated.”


Written by Joe Banish  //  Grand Forks Herald