Active Coal Mines might be Key to the Renewable Revolution

Huge upticks in renewable energy capacity installations around the world are causing demand for key rare earth elements to skyrocket. While these materials aren’t as geologically rare as their name might suggest, their production is limited as a finite number of already developed supply chains struggle to keep up with demand. As a result, prices are skyrocketing. Not only is there therefore a huge economic opportunity in establishing new supply chains for rare earths, there are also major risks to allowing current market entities to continue consolidating influence over these essential clean energy building blocks.
Currently, China dominates rare earth element supply chains. According to the Oxford Institute of Energy Studies, Beijing alone is responsible for 70% of the world’s rare earth ore extraction and 90% of rare earth ore processing. Moreover, China is still the only large-scale producer of heavy rare earth ores on the planet. This isn’t just because of China’s own rich natural deposits of these ores. “This dominance has been achieved through decades of state investment, export controls, cheap labour and low environmental standards,” reports Oxford. The country has spent decades building up supply chains around the world, expanding its energy and industrial influence into emerging markets spread across Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Now, the United States is making concerted efforts to build up its own homegrown rare earth supply chains for its own renewable energy needs, as well as considerable demand from the military. The Department of Defense has awarded more than $439 million to establish domestic rare earth element supply chains since 2020, and the Department of Energy has also been throwing billions of dollars into kickstarting the country’s lithium industry.
The United States has been scouting out supply chains for key rare earth elements around the globe, intensifying efforts to secure its own supply in recent years by turning to nations including Mongolia, South Africa, and Mexico for potential trade deals. However establishing trade agreements that China hasn’t already gotten to first has proven difficult. China has been busily expanding a green energy empire in lithium-rich Latin America, for example, but the United States has had a comparatively difficult time entering into the same market.
Luckily, the United States is also geologically rich in many rare earth elements – it will just require building an entire extraction and processing industry from the ground up. Considering the huge and rapidly growing demand for these elements, as well as the geopolitical risk associated with a one-nation monopoly on their supply chains, that kind of a timeline is less than ideal.
But researchers at the University of Utah may have found a shortcut. Ironically enough, the key to powering the U.S. renewable energy industry may require partnering with the U.S. coal industry for quicker and more cost-efficient ore extraction. The research team has found ‘elevated concentrations’ of rare earth elements in currently operational mines on the Uinta coal belt of Colorado and Utah. In theory, this could allow already active mines to extract rare earths along with the ore they’re already extracting with little additional overhead.
“The model is if you’re already moving rock, could you move a little more rock for resources towards energy transition?” said study co-author Lauren Birgenheier, an associate professor of geology and geophysics. “In those areas, we’re finding that the rare earth elements are concentrated in fine-grain shale units, the muddy shales that are above and below the coal seams.”
While the United States is making a major place to become competitive in the rare earth element market, however, it’s still many years and billions of dollars behind China in terms of industrial development as well as deal-ma king diplomacy with ore-rich nations. Plus, it can’t compete with the low labor costs, unilateral decision-making power, and lax environmental oversight that gives Beijing an edge on the market. But innovative approaches like the ones being tested by the University of Utah could open a potential avenue for regaining some of that ground.

About Parvin Faghfouri Azar

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