West Virginia has rare opportunity in rare earth minerals | Opinion
If you have recently tried to buy a new or used car, you have been directly confronted with the global shortage of semiconductor chips.
When the pandemic hit last year, there was a surge in demand for chips to power computers, phones and other consumer electronics. The tokens were diverted to meet demand. Now that the demand for durable goods is increasing, the chip shortage is hitting the auto industry hard.
Chips are made from rare earth minerals, which are made up of 17 elements sharing similar chemical properties that give them the ability to discharge and accept electrons.
They are not uncommon, as they are abundant in the earth’s crust. However, rare earth elements are generally not found in concentrated amounts, so they are difficult to extract by traditional extraction methods.
What West Virginia may not realize is that the solid-state chip crisis points to a rare opportunity for our state.
Researchers at the West Virginia Water Research Institute (WVWRI), a program of the Energy Institute at WVU, are working to turn the acid mine drainage from coal mining into a rare earth mining resource. They recently received a continuation of a $ 2.1 million contract for their work from the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL).
In an interview with WVU Today, Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of WVWRI, said they have partnered with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to build a pilot plant that will treat acid mine drainage to address the drinking water standards.
The technology will allow the extraction of one tonne per year of concentrate of rare earths and critical minerals. In addition, they are conducting a study for NETL on how to develop a national supply chain of factories in coal and metal mining areas on the basis of technology.
The factories could create significant skilled jobs and potentially produce at least 400 tonnes of rare earth elements each year.
In the United States, approximately 11,000 metric tonnes of rare earth elements are used each year in the manufacture of high-tech products, from fighter jets to cell phones.
The US Department of Energy estimates that the current global market for rare earth elements of $ 5 billion will grow by 40% over the next five years. According to the International Energy Agency, we extract about 13 percent of the rare earth elements here in the United States, China extract 60 percent, and Myanmar 11 percent.
The second part of the supply chain is processing. China processes 87% of the world’s rare earth elements and mineral concentrates. China has used its advantages in both extraction and processing to control prices and supply, leading to significant volatility and disagreements with other countries. It is time to break this monopoly.
Fortunately, countries around the world are working to develop new supply chains for rare earth elements. In the United States, the United States Department of Energy, through the Democratic and Republican administrations, has allocated millions of dollars to fund research into the extraction, processing and support of an American market for rare earth elements.
The Biden administration and the US Congress reinforce this important commitment. Real opportunities are there for us to create a better future for West Virginia to stay, rebuild and succeed.
We all hope the pandemic is a once in a lifetime event, but we can’t count on it. It’s time for America to start doing things again. For too long we have relied on the ingenuity of other countries. We cannot ignore the peril in which we place the United States without better control of our manufacturing supply chains. It is essential that we put aside our political differences to help our state and our country prosper.
I recently had the opportunity to join other lawmakers in a meeting with US Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm and US Senator Joe Manchin.
Secretary Granholm said West Virginia has been left behind, but better days are ahead. She underscored President Biden’s commitment to our state. Helping West Virginia seize this rare opportunity to play a pivotal role in the future of rare earth elements is a good start to that promise.
Senator Glenn Jeffries represents the 8th Senate District of the West Virginia State Senate. He is the president of Cornerstone Interiors and lives at Red House.