Hardcore Metal
Phased research for strategic mineral production
By Nancy Erickson
Susan Karl | US Geological Survey

n January, developers of the Bokan Mountain mining prospect on Prince of Wales Island acquired an 80,800-square-foot building to house an innovative process for separating rare earth elements. Unfortunately for the Lower Panhandle, the Strategic Metals Complex is not being built in Ketchikan, which was the plan less than two years ago.

Instead, Ucore Rare Metals acquired a disused facility at a former US Air Force base in Louisiana. The company expects to begin production there next year. A setback for Alaska’s mineral industry, but a step forward for domestic processing.

Currently, China produces more than 95 percent of the world’s rare earth elements.

Alaska has a wealth of rare earth elements and critical minerals (REE/CM) but faces challenges developing the resources due to limited road access and high energy costs. The US Department of Energy’s (DOE) funding opportunity announcement titled “Carbon Ore, Rare Earth and Critical Minerals (CORE-CM) Initiative for US Basins” aims to accelerate development of these minerals, and the the UA System is a key player in the first phase, wrapping up this year.

Lucky Thirteen
In 2021, DOE selected the UA System as one of thirteen CORE-CM centers across the country to conduct research on resource extraction, processing, and manufacturing of high-value, non-fuel, carbon-based products. Initiative organizers sought projects in traditionally fossil fuel producing communities across the US to support production of REE/CM.

“A majority of the work is focused on learning more about what critical mineral resources exist in the area and less how to recover them,” says Scott Montross, technology co-manager for critical minerals and materials at DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL). “There is a large gap in data on the occurrence and distribution of the resource that must be addressed prior to developing mining and separation efforts to recover said resource.”

Led by UAF, Alaska’s CORE-CM team includes the UA System’s three main campuses, state and federal agencies, Alaska’s mining companies, and other stakeholders.

In addition to Alaska, selected basins with potential of producing REE/CM include the Appalachian Basin, Green River-Wind River Basin, Gulf Coast Basin, Illinois Basin, Powder River Basin, San Juan River-Raton-Black Mesa Basin, and the Williston Basin.

Of the thirteen centers funded, Alaska is the only center covering all geologic basins in a state. The remaining twelve focus on specific, well-developed basins.

Selection for the program was stringent.

“DOE and National Energy Technology Laboratory adhere to a competitive application process to solicit, review, and select projects to carry out research,” says Jessica Mullen, another technology co-manager of critical minerals and materials at NETL. “This process follows strict technical and procurement guidelines to make sure the most technically competent, competitive projects are awarded funding to conduct the research that is solicited.”

Scope of Research Is Huge
“It is indeed huge. I suppose that is why DOE established three phases for the CORE-CM program,” says Brent Sheets, director of the Petroleum Development Laboratory at UAF’s Institute of Northern Engineering.

Phase 1 of CORE-CM is the only phase currently funded for all thirteen participants. Alaska’s Phase 1 is scheduled to end in September. DOE’s share of this phase is $2 million plus UAF’s cost share of $506,697, or 20 percent.

A Notice of Intent to Issue was released by DOE/NETL on January 24, 2024, which, if issued, will provide a funding opportunity announcement (FOA) for the next step forward in the CORE-CM initiative. If issued, the FOA will expand the focus from the basin scale to a larger, regional scale.

Phase 2 covers a three-year performance period from September 2024 to February 2026 with a DOE share of $7.5 million, and Phase 3 is a five-year period with a tentative conclusion date of February 2030, funded by a DOE share of $10 million.

If totally funded, the three-phase program would bring $19 million of DOE funding to the state. The Alaska team’s cost share equals $4.9 million.

“Hopefully DOE/NETL will like our plans enough to fund us going into Phase 2,” Sheets says.

The mining industry also has a part in the initiative.

“Operating mines and projects under development are partners in the CORE-CM project,” says Rajive Ganguli, a Malcolm McKinnon Endowed Professor of Mining Engineering at the University of Utah. “They are partnering by giving us access to their sites, sharing knowledge about their processes, letting us collect samples, and providing relevant data.”

Existing mines may have significant amounts of CM in historical tailings piles, Ganguli explains. The CORE-CM team will focus on those issues.

“This approach has promise,” says Ganguli. “The Bingham Canyon copper mine in Utah is now producing tellurium—though not a result of the Initiative. Adding to the product line can obviously positively affect the economics of a mine and a region. Besides, research may be able to convert a tailings pile into an asset.”

Tellurium is used in most alloys and as a conductor in solar panels.

Because it is unlikely that new mines producing REE/CM would be economical, the CORE-CM initiative was developed to understand the potential held by unconventional and secondary feedstocks, Mullen says.

Focus on Tasks Ahead
Alaska’s CORE-CM team has identified several tasks to complete in the initiative’s first phase:

  • Assessing Resources – Assemble geologic models for carbon ores associated with potential REE/CM.
  • Waste Stream Reuse Strategies – Evaluate mining waste streams to determine what minerals they may contain and if the streams are a viable resource for REE/CM. Streams to be assessed are located at Usibelli Coal Mine and Greens Creek Mine.
  • Strategies for Infrastructure – Identify challenges associated with developing minerals and work toward solutions. Infrastructure to enable REE/CM production at an existing mine would be considerably different from the infrastructure needs of a mine still under development.
  • Technology Assessment, Development, and Field Testing – Generate information about technologies appropriate for different locations so that companies can make well-informed decisions with respect to environmentally sensitive development.
  • Alaska Focused Technology Innovation Center (AK-TIC) – DOE requires each of the thirteen CORE-CM centers to develop plans for a regional Technology Innovation Center (TIC). DOE intends to provide funding to eight TICs.
  • Stakeholder Outreach and Education – Reach out to stakeholders from industry, government, Alaska Native corporations, and non-government organizations to share information about plans and progress, with opportunities for feedback.
Define “Critical”
The US imports more than 80 percent of its REE from offshore suppliers, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS) Mineral Commodity Summaries 2022 report. Similarly, in 2022, for at least forty-three of the fifty CMs identified by USGS, the US imported more than half its consumption, with no domestic production of fourteen CMs, the report states.

However, exactly which minerals qualify for the critical list are not, so to speak, etched in stone.

“Critical minerals are critical depending on—are those minerals critical for your use?” says Bob Loeffler, research professor of public policy at UAA’s Institute of Social and Economic Research. “If you’re thinking about the economy as a whole, what minerals are important for the economy? If you’re thinking about defense, what minerals are important for defense? And those can be slightly different lists.”

Rare earth elements are a small subset of critical minerals, says Loeffler. “They’re called rare earth, but they’re not particularly rare. They’re relatively abundant. There are a variety of deposits around the world. The problem is they’re almost all, right now, refined in China—and done so with environmental consequences we would not tolerate here in the US—and then they sell it back to us for uses in our economy.”

Mountain Pass Mine in California is a major producer of REE/CM, but it ships ore to China for processing.

“We do have mines that produce REEs as their byproduct,” Loeffler says. “Red Dog Mine produces germanium as a very small byproduct. Rare earths are used in a lot of magnets and things, not necessarily batteries.”

The Red Dog Mine, 80 miles north of Kotzebue, mainly produces zinc and lead.

USGS geologist George Case recording data on graphite mineralization in a core sample from the Graphite Creek deposit north of Nome.

Susan Karl | US Geological Survey

geologist George Case recording data on graphite mineralization
“If you’re talking critical minerals, we have lots of them,” he adds. “Zinc is sometimes a CM, sometimes not, depending on the list—and we’re a huge producer at Red Dog Mine. Copper, which frequently is a CM, is used for electricity everywhere.”

Graphite, a key component of high-powered lithium-ion batteries that propel electric cars, is currently not mined in Alaska. A huge deposit at Graphite Creek north of Nome is undergoing a feasibility study through Graphite One, which has defined its potential as America’s largest high-quality graphite deposit, according to Loeffler.

Again, China dominates, producing more than half of the world’s mined graphite and close to 100 percent of the highly processed product used in batteries.

“Transitioning to a green economy requires lots of minerals: general minerals, critical minerals, and rare earth minerals,” Loeffler adds.

“Critical” has a different meaning for the USGS.

“The USGS defines critical minerals as minerals for which no substitute currently exists,” explains Sheets. “One of the members of our team promotes more frequent use of the phrase ‘strategic minerals’—those whose supply is largely controlled by countries that are not necessarily aligned with the interest of the USA.”

Potential Is There
Though vastly underdeveloped and underexplored, Alaska has been and continues to be a producer of REE/CM.

“Historic REE/CM production includes antimony, barite, chromium, platinum, and tin,” Sheets says. “Current production includes zinc and germanium. The Red Dog Mine is the largest producer of zinc in the world. Germanium is contained in the same ore with zinc and separated during the smelting process.”

Sheets says it is his understanding the company-owned smelter in Canada receives credit for the germanium production, not the Red Dog Mine.

“Many CM needed for economic and national security are supplied by countries with adversarial relationships with the US,” says Jim Patten, co-principal investigator for the UAF project. “Alaska has the potential to supply many of these commodities.”

“I frequently use Utah as an example. They have mining, processing, and tourism—and they all cohabitate; industry and tourism are not mutually exclusive. Certainly we can do that in our great state too.”
Brent Sheets, Director, Petroleum Development Laboratory, UAF Institute of Northern Engineering
UAF believes in that potential.

“As we all know, Alaska exports its ore for processing outside of the state,” says Sheets. “Even if we start mining critical minerals, they still need to be separated into rare earth elements and processed into a form that allows for manufacturing. Alaska is at a disadvantage to the Lower 48 because of our higher energy costs and because of our logistical and infrastructure challenges.”

Indeed, when Ucore pivoted from Ketchikan to Louisiana, the quicker permitting at an existing industrial site was one of the attractions. A $10 million package of economic incentives played a factor, too.

For the next wave of developers in Alaska, the CORE-CM program could remove many obstacles.

“If we overcome these, then there is no reason we cannot make Alaska the mining and processing mecca for our country,” Sheets says. “I frequently use Utah as an example. They have mining, processing, and tourism—and they all cohabitate; industry and tourism are not mutually exclusive. Certainly we can do that in our great state too.

“Now I will climb back down from my soapbox.”