North Dakota Geological Survey publishes report on rare earths

Submitted Photo This is a sample site in Billings County with rare earth element concentrations in western North Dakota.

BISMARCK – The North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources’ North Dakota Geological Survey on Tuesday published a 104-page report entitled “Rare Earth Element Concentrations in Fort Union and Hell Creek Strata in Western North Dakota.”

The publication is a result of a two-year study of rare earth elements, or rare earths in lignite coal in western North Dakota.

The study is the most comprehensive study of rare earths in coal ever done in western North Dakota and discovered that North Dakota lignites contain some of the highest concentrations of rare earth elements in the nation. Rare earths have found widespread use because of the powerful magnetism, optical properties, luminescence, and strength they can impart upon the products manufactured with them. These products include many electronic and energy-efficient items found in the typical American home or business such as computers, cell phones, televisions, batteries of electric and hybrid vehicles, and LED and CFL light bulbs.

The report is being published at a time when the Department of the Interior on Tuesday announced that the U.S. is reliant on China, Russia and others for many critical minerals. They state that the U.S. is 100 percent reliant on 20 minerals, and rare earth minerals are produced almost exclusively in China. “Coal and organic-rich rock samples were collected from 64 sites in McKenzie, Billings, Golden Valley, Slope and Bowman counties and an additional site in Morton County,” said Survey Geologist Ned Kruger. “A total of 352 rock samples were analyzed for rare earths, of which 277 lignite samples averaging 120 parts per million total rare earth elements, twice the published average for U.S. coals.”

North Dakota samples rank in the top 20 of coal samples nationwide for concentrations of rare earths, with one sample being the fifth highest concentration recorded at 603 ppm, twice the U.S. Department of Energy’s potential economic threshold.

“We are still very early in the process, but these results are very encouraging,” said State Geologist Ed Murphy. “Survey geologists will now focus attention on the lignite deposits that contained high concentrations of rare earth elements to determine how large the areas are where these concentrations remain high.”

Department of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms added, “It is exciting to see that North Dakota lignite could be a source of rare earth elements. There is still a lot of work to be done, but this could benefit the existing lignite industry here in North Dakota and potentially bring an entirely new industry to the state.”

The Geological Survey is assisting with two additional studies of rare earths in North Dakota Lignite with the University of North Dakota Institute for Energy Studies and the Energy & Environmental Research Center, as well as Microbeam Technologies Inc. Both projects are funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory. The Institute for Energy Studies-led project includes Microbeam Technologies, Inc., Barr Engineering, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and has co-funding from the North Dakota Industrial Commission (Lignite Research Council), Great River Energy, North American Coal Corporation, Minnkota Power Cooperative, Great North Properties, University of North Dakota and the North Dakota University System.

“Now that we have shown that there are relatively high concentrations in some of the North Dakota lignites, the work we are doing with UND and others is crucial to finding an economic means of extracting these rare earths from our coal,” Murphy said.

A copy of the report can be found on the N.D. Geological Survey’s website.

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