Brook Mine north of Sheridan, Wyo., uncovers rare earth elements
In a staggering development, major deposits of magnetic rare earth elements including neodymium, praseodymium and samarium have been discovered at the Brook Mine northwest of Sheridan, Wyo., and specialists are calling it the largest unconventional deposit of rare earth elements in the U.S. These rare earth elements (REE) are considered important to the nation’s vital Strategic Defense and Energy Transition and many other everyday uses; including cellphones and microwaves.
It’s estimated that 28% of the mine’s deposit concentrations may be in the form of magnetic REES (heavy elements like terbium and dysprosium, known as MREEs,) and lighter REES too like neodymium and praseodymium.
The 15,000 acre mine outside Sheridan is considered one of the largest privately controlled mineral reserves in the western U.S. Currently, there’s only one active mine for magnetic REEs in the United States located near the Mojave Desert in California.
The discovery of the rare earth elements in Wyoming followed a year and a half of extensive core drilling and independent chemical analysis by researchers with the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory and analysts at Weir International, a mining consulting company, and was released in an independent Exploration Target report.
The discovery was astonishing.
OFFICIALS ARE GOBSMACKED
“We were surprised, they said they were gobsmacked after taking samples from our various types of deposits, from coal to lignite to anthracite. This came back as the highest sample which also rivaled the highest concentrations ever found in China (where most rare earth elements come from,)” said Randall Atkins, CEO and chairman, Ramaco Company. Ramaco owns the Brook Mine which sits at the scenic foothills of Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountains.
Lignite is brown coal. Anthracite is a hard, shiny black coal considered the highest coal ranking with the fewest impurities.
“I was certainly taken by their enthusiasm and want to learn more before we throw our hats in the air,” Atkins added. They’ve been drilling for nearly two years, and wanted to know the extent of their deposits.
“When you get a deposit like this, it’s important to do further drilling and assessing to really prove even further the quality and concentration that’s been found, which we’ll continue doing even after we start mining,” Atkins told The Fence Post.
Rare earth elements are used a lot in missile technology, and for military purposes, but also in computer hard drives, in microwave ovens, speakers, and one of the largest uses is in cellphones, also fiber optics, medical imaging, fuel cells and in batteries, Atkins said.
In an agricultural development, Atkins is on a worldwide council that’s studying coal to make fertilizer less-costly. It’s available now, but they’re working to make it less expensive than using methane.
THE COMMUNITY RESPONDS
The discovery of rare earth elements near Sheridan is thrilling to the mayor of Sheridan, Wyo., Rich Bridger.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Bridger told The Fence Post. “We’ll have to see where it goes, but it’s exceptional that it happened. It’s a random chance,” said Bridger. The mayor is especially interested in rare earth elements helping make the U.S. less dependent on foreign trade. “China makes a lot of batteries, and with us having this availability, it makes us more independent. I like the thought of that,” the mayor said.
This discovery could propel Ramaco to expand its strategic REE critical materials from Wyoming eventually throughout the U.S. and beyond.
Hearing that they (almost) ‘struck gold’ stirred lots of excitement at Sheridan City Hall.
“That’s pretty cool and exciting that the mine owner wants to talk to the mayor. I grew up in Sheridan, and the Big Horn Mountains aren’t far away, and the town tries to keep its history alive as much as possible, we have older buildings that we try to keep up, and we have a big rodeo that the whole county comes out for (Sheridan WYO Rodeo in mid-July,)” said Megan Paxiao, customer service division specialist at Sheridan City Hall.
“The community is aware that we’ve had a coal mine permitted there since late 2020, but we were looking at mining coal for research; and exploring how we can take coal and make graphene, graphite and carbon fiber, which we do at our research facility,” Atkins said. He said they’ve also patented a bio-sensor using graphene that can be used to detect COVID.
RARITY OF RARE EARTHS
The Brook Mine’s rare earths, which are measured in parts per million, are found in the softer clay, as opposed to only one other company in the U.S. that produces rare earths, but they do so from uranium, which requires crushing and grinding.
“Ours will be much easier to refine, and much less expensive to produce, so we regard ourselves as having a great advantage there,” Atkins said.
There’s a real scarcity, they’re not called rare earths for nothing, Atkins said. They typically come from China, and there’s concern that China could cut off their supply of rare earths to the rest of the world, so the supply and demand balance is acute. The amount of rare earths used is expected to quadruple between now and 2040, and if the demand goes up, the price is expected to follow.
Ramaco’s project began about 10 years ago when Atkins realized it’d be difficult to make a new thermal coal mine in the U.S., because utility customers started trending toward gas and renewables. He began to reach out to other sources to find out what coal could be used for other than for combustion, which ultimately produces electricity. That propelled them to work with national labs, who were intrigued that an operating coal company wanted to do more with coal than just operate power plants.
Now, more drilling and chemical assessment will be conducted to identify where the best REE concentrations are in clay deposits and similar strata that lay both above and below coal seams, and the best way to mine them to get the highest return, Atkins said.
“So we will mine the resource and take it to be processed in a plant that we’ll build on site and then further enhance it, by taking it from a concentrate to an oxide, which can be used to make magnets,” Atkins said.
Mining at the Brook Mine could begin before the year 2023 ends.
The global rare earth metals market is projected to grow from $5.3 billion in 2021 to $9.6 billion by 2026, according to Businesswire.com. What’s driving the rare earth metals market is the increasing use of rare-earth elements in the permanent magnet application.
Ramaco Resources, Inc. develops high-quality, low-cost metallurgical coal in southern West Virginia, southwestern Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania. Its operational offices are in Sheridan, Wyoming and Charleston, W.V., and its executive office is in Lexington, Ky. The company has three active mining complexes in central Appalachian region.