n 2023, Wyoming has gained project investments from companies named Plenty Unlimited and Rare Element Resources that address two pressing challenges: food security and the need for domestic rare earth minerals.
Plenty Unlimited Inc. kicked off the year with the announcement that its largest and most advanced vertical farming research center will be constructed in Laramie.
Since 2016, the company has conducted research in the city, and now plans to double its presence in the region. Supported by a $20 million grant through the Wyoming Business Council to aid in construction and infrastructure costs associated with build-out of the 60,000-sq.-ft. site, Plenty will begin construction in phases starting this year. The new facility will be located at the city’s Cirrus Sky Technology Park.
“Creating this new center of excellence greatly expands Plenty’s ability to transform indoor agriculture,” said Plenty CEO Arama Kukutai in the announcement. “We’ve already built one of the top indoor farming research ecosystems in the world in Wyoming. Our new facility will expand our capability to grow the widest variety of crops, which is key to unlocking the potential of this category and addresses a major limitation for the industry today. This continued commitment to innovation is what’s needed to push indoor farming forward and make fresh food accessible to everyone.”
According to Laramie City Manager Janine Jordan, most crops native to the region are livestock-based, like haylage and alfalfa, which means there is a reliance on importing crops like leafy greens or fruits. By investing in this project, says Jordan, the city is doing its part to ensure the advancement of agriculture in the region.
“Plenty was seeking roughly 16 acres to accommodate their new research center and Cirrus Sky Technology Park is the ideal location for this land use,” says Jordan. “The city developed the Cirrus Sky Technology Park as Wyoming’s first technology-zoned business park on a prominent ridgeline where tech-based businesses can situate among like-minded companies. It is the city’s largest-to-date strategic investment to ensure an easy path forward for technology innovators and entrepreneurs to grow and succeed in Laramie.”
Vertical farming is a technique that has gained traction in the U.S. in recent years, as companies such as Plenty look to address pressing food security concerns across the nation. Having the new facility will allow the company to diversify its research environments and support the transition of new crops to commercial farms. Institutions such as the University of Wyoming, with its Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, are vital to furthering Plenty’s R&D capabilities.
As the company looks to create 125 new jobs, it plans to capitalize on the talent pool created at the university. Jobs created will focus on science, research, engineering and data analysis as the project approaches completion in 2025.
“I think our City Council members said it best when they expressed the City’s excitement to see this investment filter out to Laramie residents in the form of new employment opportunities and greater prosperity,” says Jordan. “This investment is another step toward Laramie’s goal of building a solid cluster of technology-based businesses in both traditional and new industries.”
The Time Is Ripe for Rare Earths
After nearly a decade of development work done by Rare Element Resources for its Bear Lodge Project, motion is underway thanks in part to federal funding support.
The Bear Lodge Project, created as a result of the need for domestic supply of rare earth elements, fell short as poor market conditions hindered further development. As the world wrestles with rising geopolitical tensions, depending on foreign supply of these materials is damaging to the United States’ economic health in addition to a threat to national security. Now, five years later, the time is ripe for Rare Element Resources to move forward with the project in Sundance, Wyoming.
In October 2023, it was announced that the U.S. Department of Energy would give the company $21.9 million in federal funding for a separating and processing demonstration plant to be located 30 minutes southwest of Sundance in Upton, Wyoming, to support stockpiled material from Bear Lodge.
“The Upton site was the top contender and preferred location based on the analysis completed and our desire to remain in the state of Wyoming,” says Rare Element Resources President and CEO Brent Berg.
Berg says prefeasibility studies associated with the development of Bear Lodge showed that the Upton site met key factors such as human and environmental health, compliance with federal and state standards, National Environmental Policy Act requirements, ability to permit and site infrastructure offerings.
“The Upton site was the top contender and preferred location based on the analysis completed and our desire to remain in the state of Wyoming.”
— Brent Berg, Rare Element Resources President and CEO
Funding from the DoE will cover one half of the total estimated costs. The remaining funding needed has been secured by the company, which also will receive $4.4 million from the Wyoming Energy Authority.
“This incredible contribution exemplifies the commitment of the United States and Wyoming to secure domestic critical materials production capabilities for rare earths,” says Berg. “The planned demonstration plant will utilize our proprietary processing and separation technology and produce commercial-grade neodymium/praseodymium in a high-purity oxide that could be used in producing high-strength permanent magnets.”
Construction on the plant is to begin in November 2023, creating 25 to 30 construction jobs. As the company anticipates operations to begin during Q2 2024, 15 to 20 new full-time jobs will be created in Upton.
“When you take the world-class rare earth deposit at Bear Lodge Project and the many advantages represented by our innovative processing and separation technology, and couple it with Wyoming’s rich history of responsible mineral development, you get a winning formula for mineral independence and security,” says Berg.