Front Line: U.S. Seeks to Manufacture Critical Rare Earth Materials
Reducing the nation’s dependence on foreign imports of rare earth materials is critical to the production of energy-efficient as well as other high-tech products.
According to the Emerging Information and Technology Conference (EITC), the largest uses of rare earth materials are in the manufacturing of permanent magnets used in wind turbines, the drive trains of hybrid and electric vehicles, and energy-efficient applications. These currently account for 29 percent of total global demand.
But today, China, from whom the U.S. imports some 80 percent of rare earth product, monopolizes nearly all the production of these metals and is retaining much for its own defense and EV auto industry.
Complicating matters, U.S.-China trade disputes have caused prices for these metals to skyrocket. Threats from China to curb exports have left the U.S. scrambling for alternative supplies.
“It’s creating wild gyrations in the supply chain,” says Thayer Smith, president of USA Rare Earth (USARE). “This is a supply chain, national security, and commerce story. Demand for rare earth products is expected to grow 300 percent over the next seven years.”
Efforts to Address the Shortage
Efforts are under way in the United States to address this problem. In June, Energy Capital Economic Development (ECED) announced the opening of the Wyoming Innovation Center (WyIC), a 5,500-square-foot coal commercialization facility in Gillette, Wyoming. WyIC’s first tenant is the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL).
Today, China monopolizes nearly all the production of these metals and is retaining much for its own defense and EV auto industry. “When we first envisioned our project, we did not conceive rare earth as being a part of this,” reveals Phil Christopherson, CEO of ECED. “NETL has a rare earth component extracting from coal flash.”
As more projects materialize, WyIC can be scaled up to accommodate them. “We have created the space to create pilot plants. We have seven test pads with power and water,” explains Christopherson.
USA Rare Earth is developing the first fully integrated U.S.-based rare earth metal and sintered neo-magnet manufacturing facility. The $100 million facility, announced in June, is being located in Stillwater, Oklahoma. It will source material from USARE’s Round Top Heavy Rare Earth, Lithium and Critical Minerals Project in Hudspeth County, Texas. USARE will utilize technology to convert rare earth oxides into metals, magnets, and other specialty materials. The company plans to have the necessary operating permits for all metal, flake, and magnet operations in 2022, with initial production to commence in 2023.
Smith explains that USARE is positioned to be cost-competitive and become a leading domestic supplier of critical raw materials. He notes that the U.S. government had originally learned how to separate rare earths into individual products in the 1980s, but then outsourced the practice in the 1990s. “By the 90s, China had decided to focus on this and began acquiring businesses doing exactly that,” he says.
“The reality is, we need a full industry to be built in the United States,” he remarks. “There are a handful of people doing parts and pieces that we are doing. There is a lot of R&D. Our approach is to use tried-and-true opportunities. We are also doing this in an environmentally friendly way.”
Smith emphasizes a big boost in starting this facility was the support USA Rare Earth received from the state of Oklahoma in terms of incentives and helping the company set up a tax increment finance (TIF) district. Another benefit is Oklahoma’s research institutions and workforce, and the project’s close proximity to Oklahoma State University, which, he says, is vital.
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