round the world countries are making targeted investments in rare earth operations that drive domestic supply chains and feed into clean energy goals. In 2022, global rare earth mineral production reached 300,000 metric tons (MT), showing a substantial increase from the 110,000 MT produced 10 years prior.
This change is due in part to the swift transition to clean energy technology. Transitions to alternative energy resource collection powered by wind and solar, paired with rapid EV adaptation and technological advancements within electronics, demand a high rate of critical minerals. Mineral resources such as copper, nickel, lithium, cobalt, graphite and manganese are vital to producing batteries, magnets and electricity-related technologies that keep these systems intact.
Who are the global leaders in producing these materials? Currently, China, the U.S. and Australia carry the majority of the world’s share. China accounts for about 70% of global production, according to International Energy Agency data. The U.S. follows with roughly 14% and Australia with 4% of that share in 2022. One should expect those numbers to change within the next decade.
A First in the U.S.
In the U.S., the Biden Administration is looking to strengthen the nation’s critical mineral supply chain to decrease over 80% import reliance of these minerals, while meeting the administration’s goal of a net-zero emission economy by 2050.
To aid in the development of the nation’s first rare earth element and critical materials extraction and separation refinery, the University of North Dakota and West Virgina University in April were selected for $16 million in research funding provided through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
“Today’s funding will support a first-in-the-nation facility that will convert legacy fossil fuel waste into a domestic source of critical minerals needed to strengthen our clean energy supply chains,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm.
The University of North Dakota receives $7.9 million to conduct a study on recovery and refinement of rare earth elements and critical minerals from the state’s lignite mine wastes. West Virginia University will use its $8 million in funding to complete a study focused on using acid mine drainage and mineral tailings feedstock with an at-source pollution treatment to produce these rare earth elements and minerals. Phase two will focus on construction and operation of a demonstration-scale facility.
Australia’s Rare Investments
The most time-consuming aspect of mineral exploration is targeting where these deposits are and how far they stretch. Traditionally, this process is expensive and can be damaging to the environment.
Fleet Space Technologies, an Australia-based space technology company, has cultivated a new way for the world to analyze subsurface mineral deposits through its ExoSphere technology. This satellite-based mineral exploration technology allows users to produce a 3D scan of any given area and receive data and analytics, providing exploration teams with predictive drill-targeting models, lithology models and more.
In May 2023, the company announced that it had raised around $32.8 million ($50 million AUD) in its latest fundraising round. In the company’s release it was noted that this round of funding will support development of new technologies backed by machine learning and artificial intelligence.
“With this new funding, we are in an ideal position to propel further innovation and drive growth within the mineral exploration industry, not only in Australia but across the globe,” said Fleet Space Technologies Co-founder and CEO Flavia Tata Nardini. “Looking ahead, our vision extends beyond Earth as we aim to leverage these cutting-edge techniques to scan the Moon and Mars, enabling responsible exploration and unlocking extraterrestrial resources that were once out of reach.”
Lynas Rare Earths’ $500 million Kalgoorlie processing facility will create 128 new jobs.
Photo courtesy of Lynas Rare Earths
In Western Australia’s city of Kalgoorlie-Boulder, Lynas Rare Earths is constructing a $500 million critical minerals processing facility. For 12 years, Lynas has operated in the Goldfields region’s Mount Weld mine, and this project represents the first step in the company’s 2025 growth vision.
Key factors in Lynas’ decision to bring a processing facility to Western Australia were skilled workforce offerings, availability of recycled water, availability of industrial utilities and infrastructure, local industry support and established education and training institutions. Operations are expected to begin by 2025. About 128 direct jobs are expected to be created at the operation when complete.
Outside of China, Lynas is the only scale producer of separated rare earth minerals; its new location at the Mount Weld site provides premier rare earth deposits. Materials produced at the Kalgoorlie facility will be sent for further processing at Lynas’ Gebeng, Malaysia, plant and a future rare earths separation facility in the United States.
The U.S. facility in Seadrift, Texas, is a collaboration between Lynas Rare Earths and the U.S. Department of Defense, which in June 2022 offered the company $120 million to bring a commercial Heavy Rare Earths separation facility to the Gulf Coast in Texas. This site was selected as a future growth opportunity to introduce downstream processing and recycling to create a circular mine-to-magnet supply chain, according to Lynas.