Billions of Rare Materials Discovered in Wyoming Poised to Make U.S. Top Rare Earth Materials Producer

By: Alex Trent | Last updated: Feb 22, 2024

In an exciting development, the United States might be on its way to exceeding global leader China as the top extractor of rare minerals. A recent discovery of a huge cache of minerals has the potential to upset the world economy in a big way.

Rare earth minerals are essential to daily life in the modern world, making devices like computers, smartphones, and hybrid cars possible.

What Was Discovered?

A company called American Rare Earths Inc. recently announced the discovery of a huge cache of rare minerals that is estimated to be more than 2.57 billion tons. (via Daily Mail)

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A collection of Cerium in a vial.

Source: Leiem/Wikimedia

The discovery is reported to be in an area in Wyoming where the company has holdings of over 6,320 acres of land and 367 mining claims.

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What Are Rare Earth Minerals?

“Rare earth mineral” is the name for 17 metallic elements on the periodic table. Their name doesn’t come from the fact that they are scarce, but from the history of how difficult they were to find.

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Yttrium in different forms.

Source: Alchemist-hp/Wikimedia

Although they are abundant on the earth, they are spread so thin that people need to process tons of ore just to find traces of them.

Why Are These Minerals So Sought After?

Rare earth minerals have unique properties that give them specific applications for developing technology and medical use. The minerals tend to have conductive and magnetic properties that can enhance other elements when combined in a mixture or alloy.

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Samples of scandium on a table.

Source: Alchemist-hp/Wikimedia

Some are also essential for many forms of energy generation like nuclear, solar, wind, and oil refining. The International Energy Agency speculates that the demand for these minerals is expected to increase between three and seven times by 2040.

China’s Industry Dominance

The nation of China accounts for nearly 95 percent of the earth’s rare mineral processing, and the United States currently imports more than 74 percent of its own supply of essential minerals from it. China also produces nearly 60 percent of the world’s supply of these minerals.

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A marketplace in China.

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In the past, China has used this position to threaten to withhold exports as a political tool against the United States and other countries. (via Daily Mail)

China’s Ban on Rare Earth Processing Technology

In December of 2023, China surprised the world by announcing a ban on rare earth extraction technology. (via Reuters) It is thought that the motivation for this move is to cripple the United States since they would have to start building up their own technology to process the minerals they previously relied on China for.

Liquid metal being poured out of a container.

Source: Lucas Santos/Unsplash

The move came on the heels of news that China’s economy is struggling under the weight of recent world events like the pandemic.

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The Race Is On

While China intended its latest efforts to control prices and secure its position in the world, a backfire may be possible. China’s ban will definitely hurt countries in the short term. However, as these countries build their own technologies in the coming years, they will invariably break China’s dominance over the industry.

A sprint line start for a 100m sprint.

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Now, just two months later, the United States has discovered its own supply of rare earth minerals that will boost its ability to compete.

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Previous Drilling by American Rare Earths

This is not the first time that American Rare Earths has found caches of rare earth minerals, but it is certainly the largest by far. Their first drilling attempt in 2023 found 1.32 million tons. (via Daily Mail)

A group of machines clearing away dirt.

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The second drilling attempt found 64 percent more minerals, which surprised the CEO of the company. The increased discovery of metals in the subsequent drilling is a good sign that there is huge potential for the mining site.

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Just Scratching the Surface

Don Schwartz, CEO of American Rare Earths, issued a statement on the findings, excited about the future prospects of the company’s project.

A surface of rock that has been cut.

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‘Typically, you’ll see the resource decrease as infill drilling takes place – instead, we’re seeing the opposite, with only 25 percent of the project being drilled to this point,” he said.

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Which Rare Earth Minerals Were Discovered?

Several rare earth minerals were discovered at the mining site in Wheatland, Wyoming. These included minerals like samarium, dysprosium, terbium, praseodymium, and neodymium.

A beautiful view in Wyoming.

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The discovery of neodymium is of particular interest for its application in magnets used in smartphones and computer drives. However, all of the minerals discovered have important applications for industrial and commercial products.

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Open Mining Will Likely Be Used

The extraction method that American Rare Earths will use is reportedly open pit mining.

A view of an open pit mine.

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This type of extraction is criticized for its negative environmental impact but is common throughout the world for this type of work. It is also the fastest method for getting these minerals, which allows a company to work at a rate of 20,000 tons of rare earth minerals per day.

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Another Remarkable Discovery in Wyoming

Previous to the enormous find by American Rare Earths Inc., investor Randall Atkins, also made a significant discovery in Wyoming.

An expansive open pit mine under operation, captured during daylight. The image features heavy machinery, including red trucks and conveyor belts, used for excavating and transporting materials. The mine pit is layered with various shades of grey and black

Source: Wikimedia Commons

He discovered that the Wyoming Brook coal mine he purchased for $2 million sight-unseen might contain $37 billion worth of ‘rare earth’ minerals, an estimate provided by the Wall Street Journal.

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The Journey of Randall Atkins and the Brook Mine

Atkins, the CEO of Ramaco Resources, acquired the Brook Mine in Sheridan in 2011. 

This aerial photograph captures a coal processing facility with a large gray industrial building at the center

Source: Ramaco Resources/Linkedin

The significance of his purchase only became apparent years later when researchers revealed that the ground beneath the mine harbored rare earth elements.

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Unveiling a Geological Treasure

The Brook Mine’s land spans 6,000 acres in the Powder River Basin and has tested positive for containing significant amounts of gallium and germanium. 

This black and white image provides a top-down view of a coal mining operation, featuring massive machines with long conveyor belts

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Initial estimates suggest that there could be 1.1 million metric tons of oxides in just a quarter of the plot, according to reports by the Wall Street Journal, vastly exceeding the US average annual consumption.

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The Critical Elements Found

This discovery is not just about quantity but also about the variety of rare earth elements present. 

This close-up image showcases a small sample of a rare earth element encased in glass. The element has a metallic luster with a rough texture

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The site is also rich in neodymium, praseodymium, dysprosium, and terbium. 

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The Value of Rare Earth Elements

The rare earth elements extracted from Atkins’ mine are now being sold for more than $1 million per metric ton, the Wall Street Journal reports.

A close-up image showcasing the intricate, fibrous texture of a rare earth mineral sample. The mineral has a metallic sheen with striations and folds that reflect light

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This valuation underscores the extreme rarity and high demand for these materials, which are integral to a wide range of high-tech applications and green energy solutions.

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Mining with a Vision for Green Energy

The Daily Mail notes that under the leadership of Kentucky-born Atkins, Ramaco Resources aims to mine these elements and process them for use in green energy technologies. 

The image depicts a serene offshore wind farm with multiple wind turbines standing tall above the calm blue sea

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The focus is on producing materials necessary for electric vehicle motors and offshore wind turbines, aligning the project with broader environmental sustainability goals.

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A Legacy of Energy and Innovation

Atkins is motivated by a desire to build on his family’s legacy in the energy sector. The Daily Mail reveals his father, Orin Atkins, once transformed Ashland Oil into a multinational conglomerate.

The image depicts a daytime scene of a storage facility with multiple large, cylindrical tanks. A white industrial building with a flat roof is visible to the left. In the foreground, a white delivery truck is driving along the road

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Atkins hopes to achieve similar success by leveraging the rare earth elements for cutting-edge science and technology advancements.

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Attracting the Next Generation

Atkins believes the project resonates particularly with younger people due to its novel approach to combining mining with cutting-edge science and technology. 

The image shows a large, bright orange excavator in the midst of operation within a coal mine. The excavator is lifting a bucket full of coal

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This venture into rare-earth mining opens new horizons for the community, offering a fresh perspective on the potential of mining operations.

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The Broader Impact on the Community

The development of the Brook Mine is seen as more than just a mining operation; it represents an opportunity to bring innovative science and technology to the forefront of the local economy. 

A dynamic industrial scene showing several large pieces of heavy machinery in operation within an open pit mine. Bright yellow excavators and dump trucks are actively moving earth, with one excavator in the process of loading a truck

Source: Dominik Vanyi/Unsplash

Atkins told Wall Street Journal that he envisions the rare-earth deposits as a catalyst for transforming the community by introducing new industries and technologies.

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Acquiring the Mine

The acquisition of the Brook Mine from Brink’s, a company exiting the coal business, marked the beginning of what would become a significant venture for Atkins and Ramaco Resources. 

A large excavator dominates the landscape in this mining operation scene

Source: Albert Hyseni/Unsplash

This purchase has positioned them at the forefront of a potential revolution in green energy and technology sectors. (via Business Insider)

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Environmental Concerns Over Rare Earth Extraction

Critics point out that extracting Rare Earth Elements (REEs) often involves dealing with radioactive materials, leading to intensive purification processes that produce harmful environmental waste. 

A close-up photograph of a rare earth mineral sample

Source: Adigaskell/X

While the Brook Mine’s deposits promise a less expensive and cleaner extraction method without caustic acids, environmental groups remain skeptical of the impact on air and water quality.

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Community Skepticism and Continuous Battles

The Casper Star Tribune reports that the Powder River Basin Resource Council (PRBRC) has long opposed Ramaco’s operations, initially due to coal mining plans. With the shift towards REE mining, concerns persist among residents and environmental advocates.

Captured from above, this image shows an area of land with rugged terrain

Source: krp234/X

Critics like Shannon Anderson, PRBRC’s attorney, said “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. And so here we go — here’s another attempt.”

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Is There a Reason for China to be Worried?

If American Rare Earths continues to discover more rare earth minerals, China may have to reconsider its export strategy. While China has the edge in processing technology at the moment, more companies around the world are making strides to overcome their independence and chip away at their global dominance.

The Wuzhen visitor center in China

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The United States, as well as Australia and Canada, are already several years into a plan to scale up their processing and refining efforts.

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