(Wyoming Business Report, July 1) – Rare earth elements are a vital resource in industrialized societies and are necessary for energy generation, transportation, data transmission and national defense. In everyday life, they are found in everything from cell phones to wind turbines.
A new report from the Wyoming State Geological Survey looks at the occurrence and distribution of rare earth elements (REE) in the state, with an eye to their potential future contribution as a viable piece of the state’s evolving mineral economy.
“This report provides key information for individuals and companies interested in locating, evaluating and pursuing the potential commercial development of mineral resources that are critical to the progression of current and future high-tech industries,” said Tom Drean, Wyoming State Geological Survey director. “There is little doubt that REEs will play a key role as new innovations and associated products are developed.”
The REE group is composed of 17 metallic elements and their presence in Wyoming has been documented since the 1930s. The name rare earth elements is somewhat of a misnomer, however, as for the most part they are relatively plentiful in Earth’s crust, with the exception of the radioactive promethium. (The word rare in this instance being derived from its archaic definition of “difficult.”)
“Our investigation of REE in Wyoming has identified various geologic environments in the state in which they occur,” said Wayne Sutherland, the report’s author and WSGS gemstones, metals and economic geology specialist. “This study has also provided publicly accessible chemical analyses across Wyoming, which may aid companies and prospectors in their search for economic deposits of other types.”
The 136-page publication — “A Comprehensive Report on Rare Earth Elements in Wyoming” — is a continuation of a previous REE study requested by the state Legislature, which in 2012 allocated $200,000 of Abandoned Mine Lands reclamation funds to the WSGS to investigate potential REE-bearing deposits in Wyoming, as well as other potentially economically viable mineral deposits. Approximately $94,000 of the legislatively-approved funding went unspent and was reallocated in 2014 to the WSGS to continue its investigation into REE occurrences in Wyoming.
Geologists spent the 2015 field season collecting more than 275 new samples from previously identified and potential REE host rocks and other minerals. Another 45 samples previously collected by the WSGS for other projects were also analyzed.
“Wyoming has the potential for REE production in northeastern Wyoming,” Sutherland said, referring to the largest known REE occurrence in Wyoming — the carbonatite-hosted Bear Lodge deposit northwest of Sundance. That deposit is considered one of the largest potential sources of the minerals in North America.
A drop in current market prices for REE has slowed progress made toward establishing a mine and processing center at the Bear Lodge site, but the quality and substantial amount of REE there may justify its future development.
WSGS geologists concluded it is vital to the United States, and globally, that more REE resources be found and made available for use. Recent REE exploration in Wyoming began in 2009, and targets of renewed interest include placers, paleoplacers of several ages, alkaline igneous complexes, pegmatites and carbonatites.
Recently, the ability to extract REE from coal has been of rising interest. However, REE concentrations within most Wyoming coals are notably less than the average crustal abundance. REE have also been found concentrated in sedimentary units that host uranium deposits, but significant chemical processing challenges need to be addressed before REE extraction becomes practical from uranium tailings.
The WSGS has developed a publicly accessible database — the Wyoming Database of Geology (Wyo-DOG) — which will soon be available online. It contains locations, geologic settings, and analyses for all samples in this and earlier reports.
More information is available on the WSGS REE website.