When an Appalachian-based company begins operations at a Wyoming coal mining site late this year, the energy and enthusiasm around the work may focus more on its energy transition potential than old-school fossil fuel.
Ramaco Resources has its board approval to begin work at the Brook Mine property in Sheridan, Wyoming this quarter. The Kentucky company acquired the mine for coal, but subsequently discovered potentially vast amounts of rare earth and magnet materials, which could play a huge role in the supply chain for electric vehicles, wind power generators, and multiple other uses in the military, health care, and clean energy sectors.
The find was announced this May after extensive core sampling work was done by Ramaco, the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), and mining consulting firm Weir International. If confirmed and backed up by production, this would make Brook Mine the first new rare earth mining site in the U.S. since Mountain Pass in California 71 years ago.
The global supply chain surrounding rare earth metals, in the wake of the Covid pandemic and geopolitical crises, could impede the speed of the energy transition to lower carbon resources such as EV drivetrains and utility-scale renewable projects. Some companies are developing lithium mining sites domestically to boost the supply chain for EV batteries.
Unlocking a vast new reservoir of rare earth elements stateside, however, could be a game changer. Ramaco says new tests indicate a future reserve as much as 50% higher than originally estimated, or close to 1.2 million metric tons. The materials analyzed indicate strong presence of neodymium, praseodymium, dysprosium, and terbium, as well as secondary magnetic rare earth ores including samarium, gadolinium, and holmium.
Image credit Weir International
The first four elements noted in the Ramaco announcement are all crucial in the production of permanent magnets used in EV drivetrains and wind turbines. They also could play a role in materials needed for commercial-scale microgrids which include solar and battery storage.
Ramaco CEO Randall Atkins, a former Wall Street banker, talked about the find and its future impact Monday on CNBC’s Squawk Box morning show. Atkins expressed optimism about the Brooks Mine project but urged caution, noting that rare earth ore was a much more diffused element to collect than simply mining coal.
Although it’s in early stages and production of such diffused materials is problematic, the find could be worth close to $37 billion in value, according to reports.
Despite this discovery, the nations with the highest reserves of rare earth elements remain China, Vietnam, Brazil, Russia, India, and Australia, according to reports.