Current WRP Projects: Project 62

Evaluation of Critical Minerals (CMs) Deposits, Mainly Lithium (Li) and Rare Earth Elements (REEs), in Wyoming as well as the Economic Viability of Mining These Resources

  • Project Number:  62
  • PIs: Maohong Fan, Chemistry and Petroleum Engineering, College of Engineering and Applied Science
  • Period: July 2022 – June 2024



Critical materials (CMs), including lithium (Li) and rare earth elements (REEs, are critical materials and provide significant values to national security, energy production, environmental protection, and economic growth. Due to the special electro-, electro-magnetic, metallurgical, and optical properties, Li and REEs play irreplaceable roles in global clean energy technology development. Li and REEs are widely used in high-technology products such as rechargeable batteries, permanent magnets, lasers, health care devices, catalysts, and many others.

It has been projected that the average annual growth of demands for CMs, especially Li and REEs. The worldwide annual demand for Li could triple by 2025, while that for REEs could be >10%.    The production of Li and REEs remains limited in a few countries, because of resources constrain, technical difficulties, regulatory hurdles, and capital costs. The reserves are not evenly distributed all over the world. As a result, many countries including the USA are continuously addressing the dependency risks on CMs, especially Li and REEs, in response to the uncertainties in supply and prices. These critical materials have high demand and limited substitutes.

On one hand, the supplies of the CMs, especially Li and REEs, U.S. solely relies on imports as domestic production of Li and REEs were ceased because of the environmental concerns during mining and lack of competitiveness. On the other hand, unconventional CMs-containing resources including, produced waters or brines from energy material production, acid mine drainage, and coal and coal byproducts (C&CBs). However, the concentrations of CMs, especially Li and REEs in these resources is several orders of magnitude lower than those of Li and REEs and ores. Thus, extractions of REEs and Li from these materials are challenging. In addition, mining and processing of Li and REEs production are usually associated with detrimental environment impacts and high costs. Thus, development of environmentally benign and economically competitive technologies has become imperative.

The proposed project is to assess the feasibility of producing Li and REEs from CMs deposit in Wyoming. Wyoming has a lot of brines from energy material production processes. Wyoming could have a lot of CMs, especially Li and REEs. In the past, people have done some preliminary evaluations. However, the consistency of the data is not adequately high, resulting from the various factors, including variation of the methods used for sampling (that could significantly affect the concentrations of CMs) and measurements. Thus, having a comprehensive and systematic investigation of the CMs (especially Li and REEs) in water resources (especially brines) with standard sampling and measurement methods is needed. Moreover, finding economically feasible technologies for extracting the Li and REEs in Wyoming is imperative. The proposed project is designed to complete the mission via the performance of seven tasks - 1) collecting the information on any current and ongoing research surrounding Li and REEs extraction technologies, 2) evaluating the concentration of Li and REEs in brines in Wyoming and the possibility  in separating the CMs from them, 3) examining the needed policy needed for the production of dissolved Li and REEs, 4) outlining any specific research needs surrounding Li and REEs production, 5) conducting literature review of the current industrial Li and REEs extraction technologies, 6) listing and explaining ongoing research in Li and REE extraction fields, and 7) conducting techno-economic assessment of Li and REEs production in Wyoming. The success of the proposed have a far-reaching impact on CMs based economy in Wyoming and the U.S.

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