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UW Receives DOE Funding for Carbon Ore, Rare Earth and Critical Minerals Initiatives in Wyoming

April 30, 2021

The University of Wyoming will receive nearly $3 million from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for research focused on expanding and transforming the use of coal and coal-based resources to produce coal-based products, using carbon ore, rare earth elements (REE) and critical minerals (CM).

Two separate projects submitted by UW’s School of Energy Resources (SER) Center for Economic Geology Research (CEGR) were selected by the DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy and announced this week. The funds will cover research in the Powder River Basin (PRB) of Wyoming and Montana and the Greater Green River and Wind River basins (GGRB-WRB) of Wyoming and Colorado.

The selected UW projects are among 13 nationwide announced totaling $19 million. Some of the other regions selected for study include the Appalachian Basin, the San Juan River-Raton-Black Mesa Basin, the Illinois Basin, the Williston Basin, the Uinta River Basin, the Gulf Coast Basin, and in Alaska and Kansas.

“SER is thrilled to have received these grants from the Department of Energy,” says SER Executive Director Holly Krutka. “We are honored to collaborate with stakeholders around the state and region to lead a research program focused on building the tools needed to support a rare earths and critical minerals industry.”

The production of REE and CM is vital for use in electronics, magnets, batteries, phosphors for lighting, as well as applications in national security and clean energy production -- including the manufacturing of wind turbines.

The U.S. has been heavily reliant on imports of REEs from China, which has dominated the global market. As the demand for REEs has been on the rise, the U.S. has engaged in finding alternative domestic sources.

The feasibility of recovering REEs from coal-based resources has been expanded through efforts led by the DOE and the National Energy Technology Laboratory. The state of Wyoming, and particularly the PRB and GGRB-WRB, are well positioned to support carbon ore, REE and CM research.

“I couldn’t be more excited for these projects,” says CEGR Director Scott Quillinan. “Wyoming, Colorado and Montana have vast natural resources, and we are just beginning to learn the full potential of REE and CM resources associated with coal seams. It is interesting even though the two projects overlap much of Wyoming, the rare earth element and critical mineral resources located in each of the basins are very different. These projects will lay the framework for new industries in each of these basins.”

SER and other project partners have extensive experience in characterizing and interpreting REE and CM in coal and coal byproducts. Previous studies by CEGR and collaborators also have looked to other unconventional sources for REE deposits, such as uranium, produced water and in sedimentary phosphate deposits.

Additionally, UW has existing programs and facilities dedicated to the development of coal products and coal-to-products to support these grants.

Serving as the principal investigators for the projects are SER’s Erin Phillips, a senior research scientist, who will lead the collaborative team in the PRB, while Davin Bagdonas, an associate research scientist, will head up the efforts in the GGRB-WRB.

“The PRB CORE-CM project is an outstanding opportunity to investigate all aspects of carbon ore, REE and CM resource development in the PRB, with the goals of catalyzing economic growth and promoting job creation,” Phillips says. “I am honored to lead this effort and look forward to working with our many committed project partners.”

CORE-CM stands for carbon ore, rare earth and critical minerals.

With the expertise of Phillips and Bagdonas, SER has influenced the direction of coal research nationally and internationally, making SER one of the preeminent leaders of REE characterization and extraction.

In addition to decreasing the reliance on REE imports, UW’s transformative research is intended to catalyze regional economic growth and stimulate workforce development and technology innovation, while using the full potential of natural resources -- including coal -- across U.S. basins.

“CORE-CM is a strong step forward for the needed diversification of domestic resources and paired technology growth,” Bagdonas says. “The fact that these programs focus not just on REE/CM and carbon ore products derived from coal and coal byproducts, but entire supply chain considerations with associated development at the community level shows a well-thought-out and holistic approach to diversifying and modernizing coal use. This is so important for not just our local communities across Wyoming, Colorado and Montana, but the United States as a whole.”

Phase 1 of both projects will run for two years when the teams assemble an assessment of CORE-CM resources; evaluate existing field data; prepare initial plans for economic development activities; as well as develop outreach and education plans. If successful in these preliminary activities, the projects will be able to apply for additional funding in Phases 2 and 3.

The projects will play a critical role in advancing the directive set forth by Gov. Mark Gordon to strive toward net-negative carbon emissions.

“We are grateful for the support from the Wyoming federal delegation, state Legislature and executive branches, UW research support, Wyoming Energy Authority and our many collaborators in helping to advance our mission,” Krutka adds.

For the complete DOE media release about CORE-CM awards, go to www.energy.gov/articles/doe-awards-19-million-initiatives-produce-rare-earth-elements-and-critical-minerals.

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