In 2011, Randall Atkins, a former Wall Street banker, bought a mine outside of Sheridan, Wyoming, sight unseen, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Originally, the plan was to sell coal to power plants, the Casper Star-Tribune reported.
However, in collaboration with the DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory and geologists at Weir International, Inc., Atkins’ company, Ramaco Resources discovered there was more than just coal to be mined from Atkins’ land.
In May, Ramaco announced that Atkins’ Brook Mine contains one of the largest unconventional deposits of rare earth elements in the US. Because of that, the mine is worth an estimated $37 billion — significantly more than the roughly $2 million he bought it for, per the WSJ.
Unconventional deposits mean the REEs are located in substances other than the usual hard igneous rocks that REEs are typically mined from.
For example, rare earth deposits can occur in cobalt and other minerals, “and these substances have to be cracked, crushed, and ground before you can ever even begin the processing,” Atkins told The Sheridan Press earlier this year.
With unconventional deposits, “a different set of geologic criteria are needed to accumulate rare earths and critical minerals,” Kelly Rose, a geo-data scientist with the US Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, told Business Insider.
“The US has quite a large amount of these types of sedimentary basins,” Rose said, including clay, shale, coal, and sandstones.
Ramaco said it could start operations this year, making it one of two REE mines currently operating in the country.
Why rare earth elements are so valuable
Neodymium, praseodymium, and dysprosium are just a few of the REEs found in Atkins’ Brook Mine, according to a company press release.
“Rare earths are used in a wide array of applications, including specialty glass products, steelmaking, batteries,” Patty Webber with the Wyoming State Geological Survey told Wyoming Public Radio. They’re also used in lasers and other Defense Department weapons.
From 2018 to 2021, about 74% of REEs in the US were imported from China, Reuters reported. And those imports aren’t cheap.
In 2021, the US imported $160 million worth of rare-earth compounds and metals, per the US Geological Survey.
That’s why, the US government is pushing to mine for REEs at home instead of relying on imports. Early this year, the White House announced it plans to invest $32 million in domestic rare earth and other mineral projects.
Discovering the motherload
The National Energy Technology Laboratory wanted to create a model to predict where these unconventional rare and critical minerals are.
“No one has done this before,” Rose said. Wyoming seemed like a good place to train the model because it has a younger and therefore less complicated history. “We wanted to start simpler,” Rose said.
They started with US Geological Survey samples from the 1980s, but they needed more, Burt Thomas, a hydrologist with NETL said.
“You’re not just looking at the coal itself, you’re looking at the clays underneath the coal, and you’re looking at the sediments that overly the coal,” he said.
That’s why they wanted to partner with a mine, to get a larger number of samples from deep within the earth.
After looking at some of the Brook Mine samples, Rose and Thomas realized the deposit appeared to have a lot more of the heavier rare elements than the lighter ones. Thomas called it an exciting finding.
“Separating out those lights is the goal,” Thomas said. “If you start with a deposit that has less of those lanthunum and cerium, relative to the others, then your challenge is easier.”
What do critics say?
Often, REEs are found mixed with other elements, including some radioactive ones. Separating and purifying them is intensive and creates waste that can be harmful to the environment.
The Brook Mine’s unconventional deposits are supposed to make extraction less expensive and won’t require the use of caustic acids, Atkins said.
However, the Powder River Basin Resource Council is concerned. It has been fighting Ramaco for years, back when the company still planned to mine coal. Residents worried how its presence might affect air and water quality, according to Wyoming Public Radio.
With plans for the mine shifting to REEs, the PRBRC seems to still have concerns, according to The Casper Star-Tribune.
“This is a company that’s been looking for a way to make value out of something they bought many years ago, and they just haven’t found the right way to make profit yet,” Shannon Anderson, the PRBRC’s attorney, told the paper. “And so here we go — here’s another attempt.”
Source: Business Insider