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A rare earth facility is one step closer to being constructed near Upton

Upton Economic Development Board

Rare Element Resources, a strategic minerals company that focuses on delivering rare earth products for technology, defense, and energy applications, announced that a to-be constructed facility near Upton is nearing the final stages of engineering phase that’s slated for completion at the end of this year.

“The purpose of the Upton plant and for which we received [a] $22 million grant from the Department of Energy [in October 2021] is to demonstrate the proprietary technology that Rare Element Resources, and an affiliate of General Atomics, which we call UIT had been working on over the last three or four years now to fully separate the rare earth elements into a combined NdPr [Neodymium-Praseodymium] product, which is the purpose of the proposal of the proposed project,” said Randy Scott, President and CEO of Rare Element Resources. “But we'll also be producing other concentrates of the rare earth elements. The real reason we're doing this is to prove up the production of NdPr at commercial grade such that this is the elements that are necessary to produce a high strength permanent magnet.”

Scott explained that these magnets are used in electric vehicles, wind turbines, electronics, and in military applications. He added their plans include leasing a warehouse building at the Upton logistics center, which formerly housed a truck shop, for the demonstration facility.

“At the beginning of 2022, we've really started moving forward in earnest with regards to the three year project to build that demonstration plan,” he said. “So the first year or so is devoted to the engineering and design of the project and then roughly the next year is devoted to procurement of equipment and construction and then the final eight to 12 months will be devoted to actual operations of the plant. So right now, the progress that we've made over the last eight or 10 months now is devoted mostly to preparing the final design of the project.”

The Upton logistics center has rail connections that will take the rare earth minerals for processing at out-of-state locations. Once the technology has been constructed in the warehouse building, which is slated to begin next year, existing rock samples containing rare earth minerals previously obtained in Crook County will be relocated to Weston County.

“The material from the mine that will feed the Upton plant is about a thousand-ton sample that we obtained back in 2015,” Scott explained. “That material is sitting on private land near Sundance and is ready to be transported down to Upton once the plant is ready. The demonstration plant is ready to receive it there. For this particular project, there will be no mining required to progress the demonstration project.”

Scott added that approximately 30 workers will be involved in the construction phase of the project with about 20 being involved during the actual operation of the facility. He expects that construction will be completed in early 2024 with operations commencing shortly thereafter.

“We're always very happy that our project is located in northeastern Wyoming, in particular, near the towns of Sundance and Upton,” he said. “It's a great place to build a plant, it's a great place to build a mine, and it's a major competitive advantage for Rare Element Resources as we go out to compete in the world with regards to other rare earth projects.”

The company also has plans to mine rare earth minerals in the Black Hills National Forest near Sundance. However, Scott indicated that any mining operations are likely still several years off at least.

“I would say that the success of that [mining operations] and the decision to do that will depend on the success of the proprietary technology and the demonstration plant [near Upton],” he explained.

What the rest of the world market does could also determine the timeline. The permitting process could also still take awhile.

“We could be looking at a period of six or seven years before the commercial plant was up and running, depending much on how long it takes us to get the permits,” he said. “What we're doing in Upton, what we're doing at the demonstration plant, is we're building proprietary technology, innovative technology, which we think is going to be very advantageous in competing on costs in the world, and quality in the world. But that technology has not been demonstrated at the scale we're going to do for the Upton plant now. And before anybody spends $400 million to build a commercial plant, I think everybody would like to know that this has been proven at scale.”

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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