INL researchers develop rare earth mining technology

Courtesy INL INL scientist Tedd Lister observes a sample, part of work being conducted with the Critical Materials Institute. INL researchers play a big role in the Ames, Iowa-based institute, and are working at developing methods for recycling rare earth elements from electronics and other sources. Courtesy INL

Courtesy INL INL scientist Yoshiko Fujita discusses samples with a colleague, part of research being conducted with the Critical Materials Institute. Courtesy INL

INL scientist Yoshiko Fujita collects data as part of a project with the Critical Materials Institute. Courtesy INL

INL scientist Dan Ginosar performs research on supercritical fluids, part of an ongoing project looking at rare earth metals and other materials with the Critical Materials Institute. Courtesy INL

n Texas-based U.S. Rare Earths Inc wants to mine rare earths in Lemhi County

Idaho National Laboratory researchers helped develop a new technology they say will make mining rare earth elements in the U.S. easier and cheaper.

The company planning to use the technology, Texas-based U.S. Rare Earths, Inc., wants to mine rare earths in Lemhi County, as well as Montana and Colorado.

“This (technology) is directed toward relieving the reliance of U.S. manufacturers on imported rare earths,” said Alex King, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Institute.

Rare earth elements, or as DOE calls them, “technology metals,” are crucial to our interconnected, electronics-filled lives. There are 17 of the hard-to-pronounce elements such as lanthanum, cerium and neodymium. They are found in everything from smartphones, to electric cars, to fluorescent lights and wind turbines.

But as their name implies, rare earths have proven hard to reach. They are unevenly distributed around Earth’s crust. China controls the vast majority of rare earth metal exports, which in recent years led to supply shortages and skyrocketing prices.

Two years ago, DOE launched the Critical Materials Institute, led by the Ames Laboratory in Iowa. The effort includes dozens of researchers with rare earth expertise from national labs, universities and companies around the country.

The institute’s mission: Find better rare earth mining techniques, and figure out ways to recycle rare earths from consumer products to lessen our dependency on China.

Researchers from the institute met at INL last week. One of the hot topics was the institute’s first major success story — licensing one of their technologies to U.S. Rare Earths.

“Having an invention adopted at the end of two years is remarkably fast,” King, the institute’s director, said in an interview last week. “It usually takes about 15 to 20 years for that kind of thing to happen.”

The technology is called a membrane solvent extraction system. It was co-invented by INL researcher Eric Peterson and Ramesh Bhave and Daejin Kim, both from Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The technology is able to selectively pull certain rare earth metals out of mining streams, or from electronic waste, using a combination of hollow fiber membranes and several liquid solvents and extractants, a news release from Oak Ridge said.

“The big challenge for a U.S. company (mining) rare earths is that it’s expensive to do here,” King said. “The ores that we have, the places where they are, and the cost of labor — all of those things conspire to make it very expensive here.”

Molycorp Inc., the only U.S. producer of rare earths so far, with a mine in California, is a good case study. It struggled when prices dropped dramatically at the end of 2011, and eventually filed for bankruptcy in June.

“Our answer to that (problem) is to improve the technology, to lower the cost,” King said. “And this is the first case where we have an improved technology that will significantly lower the cost of extracting rare earths.”

In the Oak Ridge release, U.S. Rare Earths CEO Kevin Cassidy said his company also could use the technology to recycle crushed electronic waste in order to pull out rare earths such as neodymium, dysprosium and praseodymium.

U.S. Rare Earths has three mining claims in Lemhi County, near Lemhi Pass, and two other claims in Montana. The company started preliminary drilling in the area in 2013, looking for ideal places to mine. So far, its work has only been exploratory. Cassidy did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday.

Like Molycorp, U.S. Rare Earths apparently struggled since rare earth prices dropped, despite not yet having an active mining operation. Its stock has mostly been in a downward trend since 2012, trading at 70 cents per share Tuesday from a high of more than $18 in 2011.

King said the market is now stabilized. “Supply is currently sufficient to meet demand,” he said.

But when someone invents something new that requires rare earths, as happens quite often, “we go from sufficient supply to a deficit, overnight,” King said.

Peterson, the INL researcher, said the lab will continue to work on improving rare earth recycling technologies, and technology that could help make rare earth manufacturing methods more efficient. It’s an area of expertise that stems from INL’s long history researching and recycling material from used nuclear fuel rods.

Researchers are team- ing with an aircraft manufacturing company to improve its rare earth manufacturing process. Peterson and King couldn’t say which one.

“When you manufacture something, there’s always waste,” King said. “(This aircraft company) has a process that typically has about an 80 percent waste rate. For every 100 pounds of material they buy, 20 pounds ends up in an airplane, and 80 pounds ends up on the shop floor. We’re looking at being able to recover that 80 pounds off the shop floor.”

But large-scale recycling of rare earth metals from crushed consumer products such as smartphones and electric car batteries is still a ways off, Peterson and King said. That’s largely because the process still costs so much more than mining the materials.

King said one thing for sure: Our dependency on rare earths, for everything from high-end speakers to military weapons, is only increasing.

“I was asked in Congress a few weeks ago which specific defense systems contain rare earths,” King said. “I had to think about it for a bit. And I said, ‘It would be easier to answer which ones do not — and the answer is none.’”

Luke Ramseth can be reached at 542-6763. Twitter: @lramseth