The US Department of Energy (DoE) has uncorked $156m in project finance to develop next-generation processes to extract and separate a range of critical minerals and rare earth materials from mining waste that are key to wind and solar power and battery technologies.
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm called the funding from last year’s $1trn bipartisan infrastructure law an “historic opportunity to turn legacy waste into the components of clean energy technology in a way that bolsters domestic supply chains and enhances our national security”.
“The demand for clean energy technology continues to grow at a rapid pace and an American-made critical minerals refinery will help generate jobs and increase our competitiveness on the global stage, ” she said.
The announcement clears the way for applications from US academic institutions for a front-end engineering design study followed by the design, construction, and operation of a “first-of-a-kind” domestic pilot facility that will extract, separate, produce, and refine rare earth elements and other critical minerals.
Lack of mid-stream refining is a major vulnerability as most minerals extracted here must be shipped overseas for processing. New refineries and smelters, along with long-haul electric transmission lines, are among the most difficult US infrastructure projects to permit due to onerous regulatory processes and stakeholder opposition.
Critical minerals – those vulnerable to supply disruption - and rare earth elements are key manufacturing inputs for clean energy technologies such as electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells, offshore wind turbines, and solar panels.
DoE estimates there are billions of tons of coal waste and ash, acid mine drainage, and discharged water from fossil fuel extraction and combustion, and metals mining. It did not detail what minerals and rare earth elements the mining waste could yield, or the quantities.
The US presently imports at least 50% of 46 of 50 minerals deemed essential to its economic and national security, and 100% of 30 of those including various rare earth elements, according to the US Geological Survey.
Rare earth materials are a group of 17 chemical elements that, despite their name, are plentiful and relatively straightforward to mine, but are considered ‘rare’ because they are difficult to separate and refine into a usable form.
Some of these minerals and rare earths are sourced from Australia, Canada, and other reliable suppliers. Most, however, used in clean energy are largely extracted and processed by countries that President Joe Biden’s administration views as politically hostile or unstable, or who violate human rights of workers employed in mines and refining operations.
The White House estimates that China, for example, controls roughly 55% of global rare earths’ mining capacity and 85% of their refining. Another key producer of rare earths is Burma, while large reserves are held by Brazil, Russia, and Vietnam. Most cobalt and lithium used in rechargeable batteries is also refined by China.
Extraction from mining waste is one facet of the administration’s strategy to create a ‘Made in America’ supply chain for critical minerals and rare earths.
Others include formation of an interagency working group at the Department of Interior that will lead a federal effort on legislative and regulatory reform of mine permitting and oversight, and use of the 1950 Defence Production Act to increase domestic production of cobalt, graphite, lithium, manganese, and nickel, among other minerals used in EVs.
The International Energy Agency has forecast that demand for those EV minerals will skyrocket this decade as western nations push a green transition to meet Paris Agreement emissions targets. Biden wants 50% of US passenger vehicle sales to be electric by 2030.