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UND researchers hit milestone in rare-earth minerals production

Dan Laudal and Nolan Theaker
Dan Laudal, left, research professor with UND’s College of Engineering & Mines Research Institute 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.

Efforts by UND researchers to transform the state into a hub to produce rare earth elements (REEs) and critical minerals (CMs) continue to move forward, and the pilot production facility, located off Mill Road in Grand Forks, has begun to produce concentrated mixtures of the compounds.

This most recent development comes on the heels of a high-level visit of federal energy leaders. The delegation came to North Dakota in mid-October to tour the facility and a lignite coal mine near Underwood, N.D. The visitors included members of the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) and leaders from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management (FECM), Office of Manufacturing and Energy Supply Chains and Office of International Affairs.

The visit was significant because it allowed the federal decision makers to get a first-hand look at UND’s pilot extraction facility, said Nolan Theaker, senior research manager with the Research Institute at the UND College of Engineering & Mines.

“This event was the highest number and highest rank of DOE representatives to date who have visited campus for this project, and they represent some of the key decision makers at DOE for making a commercial project a reality,” he said.

Moreover, Theaker said, the visit focused on the practical future of extracting REEs in the state, rather than the theoretical.

“This visit wasn’t purely about technology discovery anymore. Instead, it was about how this process could be built as a commercial effort.”

The visit by federal leaders came roughly six months after UND was awarded an $8 million DOE grant to explore the possibilities of REE production in North Dakota. The grant is part of a federal effort to produce those elements inside the United States, as most of the elements currently are produced in China. This puts the nation’s supply at risk should China curtail exports of the elements.

Critical minerals are used in a wide variety of electrical products, including smartphones and electric vehicles, as well as industrial magnets. Notably, they’re also a crucial part of the nation’s national defense supply chain.

The DOE grant is helping UND researchers explore the viability of producing REEs from North Dakota lignite coal, and is Phase 1 of a two-phase federal program to build an REE extraction facility somewhere in the United States. Moving to Phase 2 means unlocking an additional $134 million in DOE funding to build the facility.

Read the full story at UND Today.