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Rare earth elements: North Dakota’s diamonds in the rough

UND researchers say refining rare earth elements (REEs) in the state can transform the economy, add to national supply chain stability

Dan Laudal, left, research professor with UND’s Institute for Energy Studies, and Nolan Theaker, senior research manager with the Institute, are working on game-changing research on rare earth elements that could transform a portion of the state’s economy. Photo by Adam Kurtz/UND Today

It’s truly amazing that something can come from nothing. Or almost nothing — meaning a substance scientists measure in grams can have so much importance for the global manufacturing industry, and the national defense of the United States.

In early April, two UND researchers were awarded an $8 million U.S. Department of Energy grant to study the possibility of recovering and refining rare earth elements (REEs) in North Dakota, specifically from lignite coal. It’s a project, the researchers say, that has the potential to transform the state and a portion of its energy economy into a near-future supply hub of materials critical to manufacturing, supply chain stability and national defense.

The topic of rare earth elements is frequently brought up in media outlets, as they are crucial manufacturing components. Most of these elements are mined and refined outside the United States, putting the nation at a disadvantage in securing its needed supply.

Below is a Q & A about the grant and rare earth elements with Dan Laudal, research professor with UND’s Institute for Energy Studies, and Nolan Theaker, senior research manager with the Institute. Laudal is the project manager for the grant while Theaker is the principal investigator. Together, they explain the importance of rare earth elements and their research into the potential of extracting those elements in North Dakota.

Key Q & A takeaways:

  • North Dakota’s vast deposits of lignite coal are a significant source of rare earth elements.
  • The global market for items using these elements tops $4 trillion annually.
  • Elements can be extracted from lignite while preserving the coal as a fuel source, revitalizing the industry and opening up new industry opportunities in the state.
  • UND and North Dakota are vying with West Virginia University and West Virginia for federal funds topping $120 million to build a processing facility for these rare earth elements.

What are rare earth elements, and why are they important?

Dan Laudal (DL): If you remember from your high school chemistry class when you were learning the periodic table, there is a block of elements on the bottom of the table that are separate from the rest. The rare earth elements are within that separate block. They have weird properties, which make them uniquely valuable for an incredible number of applications.

Nolan Theaker (NT): There are 17 of these elements, including Scandium and Yttrium. While all 17 of these elements are all relatively similar in nature, each one has unique properties, many of which have no realistic substitute. What this means is that when someone makes a product from them, there isn’t an easy replacement for that product with a non-REE source. REEs are used in products accounting for over $4 trillion dollars globally, or 5% of the entire world’s economic output.

Which of these elements can potentially be found in North Dakota? What are they used for?

NT: REEs occur together – all 17 of them. North Dakota has all of them, but most critically we have good amounts of those that can make prized magnets, as well as important alloying elements. These magnets have no effective replacement today, and are used in everything from disk drives, electric vehicle and wind turbine motors, gyroscopes for cell phones or missile guidance systems, MRI machines and medical devices and still more. Other REEs can make stronger aluminum alloys approaching the strength of steel for tiny fractions of the weight. These alloys have aerospace applications, as well as their current largest use – sports equipment and golf clubs.

DL: While we have all the rare earth elements, North Dakota’s rare earth resources are unique in that we have a favorable distribution of some of the most valuable ones. Rare earth magnets are the strongest magnets that can be manufactured today and are used in almost all the electronic devices we make and use.

Where do these elements typically originate? Is it better to produce them here in the United States?

NT: Some of the elements come from a few sources, including a mine in California. The major source for all REEs is China. Processing of REEs happens completely in China, which presents a major supply chain and influence risk to the U.S. To have stable, domestic sources of REEs is critical to reduce the influence of other countries over us. Also, we have a chance to extract these REEs in a far more environmentally friendly way than historic mining has been conducted in China. The U.S. (and ND in our lignite) has significant resources, and we can extract them very safely and environmentally consciously, not something true in all areas of the world.

How can you extract these elements? Will you use UND facilities to do so?

NT: The REEs in the ND lignite are unique, they aren’t found in hard minerals we must dissolve with concentrated acids. We can extract them with a far milder solvent very rapidly, by just washing the surface of the coal. We then filter out the coal from the REE-laden solution and precipitate the REEs back into a solid somewhere else. As a sense of scale, this process will have taken hundreds of tons of coal and generated a few 5-gallon buckets of this REE material. From here, we separate the mixture of REEs further into their individual elements at a refiner before they can be made into REE products.

UND is currently commissioning a pilot facility capable of processing up to 120 tons of lignite per week into our REE solids, but this isn’t a commercial scale by any means. Our goal is to, over the next year, process about 250 tons of lignite through this system, giving us all of the data we would need to design a commercial-scale facility and project our technology’s economics.

Is there the possibility to build an extraction facility in North Dakota? What would that mean for the state?

DL: Our new project was one of only two awards for the first phase, which is the engineering and business development phase. The other team awarded is from West Virginia University. The DOE intends to select one of these two teams to move on to the second phase where the extraction facility would be built and operated. We are confident in our technology and the team we have, but there is lots of work to do over the next year and a half to put us in position for the next phase. If we are successful in moving on to Phase 2, this could mean the start of a completely new set of industries for North Dakota. The possibilities are truly exciting.

NT: Our current phase of the grant is to perform an engineering and de-risking study to identify if a commercial extraction facility makes sense here. If we’re successful in building a sufficient technical and business case, we will continue to a second phase where DOE will commit about $125 million to support the construction and commissioning of a first-of-its-kind rare earth elements production facility, pushing this into the commercial realm. I believe UND is well situated to move into this next phase and making a commercial plant a reality. Even more plants could follow.

You will be examining the possibility of extracting these elements from coal, and coal waste. Why look there? Is there enough coal waste in the state for this to be a significant source of these elements?

DL: The Department of Energy started evaluating coal and coal byproducts as a resource for rare earth elements back in about 2014 and we were fortunate enough to be among the first teams awarded funding to explore the feasibility. The goals are twofold – one, to diversify the markets for lignite coal and two, to develop a more secure domestic supply chain of rare earth elements.

Another unique benefit of our technology and approach is that we both recover valuable metals from the lignite and upgrade the lignite into a unique carbon product that can be a better fuel or used in an array of carbon-based products such as graphene and graphite that are used in batteries. The possibilities are endless when it comes to the carbon products we can manufacture. This aspect of what we’re doing further advances the goal to diversify the markets for lignite coal.

NT: We want to extract all possible value from every ton of earth dug up, to minimize the environmental impact of mining. This will also improve the value of the lignite supply chain and can aid an industry that has only one use for lignite— as a fuel. Adding a non-fuel reason for mining coal can only shore up that industry, while giving us access to the REEs.

We want to look at coal waste, or the margins of the coal seams currently unused in the power plants, for a few reasons: That’s where REEs are most concentrated, and we don’t want to disturb ongoing mining operations. And when we have finished extracting the REEs, the leftover lignite can be used for combustion for electrical production, and we expect that it will burn better than prior to extraction.

One more thing to consider, coal is a virtually inexhaustible resource in North Dakota. At current pace, we could mine lignite for the next 800 years. There isn’t huge amount of REEs in the coal, but given the amount we have to extract from, I think lignite could be a major source of these elements, and can drastically improve supply chain security for the U.S.

Would extracting these elements in the state cause pollution?

NT: Our goal is to minimize the environmental impact as much as possible. By using a mild solvent in our extraction process, doing as much as we can to minimize water usage and involve recycling of water, and responsibly disposing of whatever quantity of wastewater and solids wastes that we can, I believe we can keep environmental impacts very low. We are aiming for zero environmental impact on the surrounding communities where these plants will operate.

DL: One of the things we will need to do during the first phase of our new DOE project is to prepare all of the technical and environmental information needed to secure permit and regulatory approvals for the commercial plant. We are working with a professional engineering and environmental consulting company for this effort. Our technology is designed to limit waste streams, emissions and effluents and we are confident that we can meet all environmental standards at the local, state and federal levels.

What is the main takeaway that you would like people to understand about your research and its potential?

NT: To me, it comes down to the communities surrounding these coal plants. The fact that we’re knocking on the doorstep of bringing major new industries to these areas and the region, the fact that we’re stabilizing these coal jobs for many years to come, and the fact that we are doing this with as much focus on minimizing the negative environmental impacts on those communities is the bright light to me. Giving these communities and North Dakota these new avenues for growth is what excites me.

DL: My Ph.D. research involved some of the early days of this work, so this new project and the commercial potential on the horizon are particularly exciting for me. I am incredibly proud of the research team at the College of Engineering & Mines and the many partners that have worked with us over the years. We have taken this from a wild idea, to beakers in the lab, to a pilot-scale demonstration, and now to the potential development of a commercial project.