Rare earth minerals found in Utah, Colorado, are critical for cleaner energy sources

May 28, 2024, 12:00 PM | Updated: 8:22 pm

Rare earth minerals...

Michael Vanden Berg, geologist with the Utah Geological Survey, examines a coal outcrop near Utah's old Star Point mine. (Lauren Birgenheier, University of Utah. )

(Lauren Birgenheier, University of Utah. )

SALT LAKE CITY — Researchers from the University of Utah have discovered rare earth minerals in coal mines in eastern Utah and western Colorado.

According to Associate Professor of geology and geophysics, Lauren Birgenheier, the work involved studying active coal mines in those regions for the past couple of years. Researchers found the minerals above and below coal seams in Utah and in the Uinta coal belt in Colorado.

“There are certain elements on the periodic table that the U.S. Department of Energy, but also the U.S. Geological Survey, has said we’re using a lot of these. But, most all of them are coming from foreign sources and largely, from China,” said Birgenheier. 

“So, we would be in a very vulnerable position if we weren’t able to actually have access to those.”

What are rare earth minerals?

Professor Birgenheier explained which elements they’ve been looking for.

“The ones we’re studying are this subset, it’s called the rare earth elements … You know, there’s two rows at the bottom of the periodic table,” she said. “It’s the first of those two rows. These rare earth elements are things like yttrium, lanthanum, presidium, neodymium, dysprosium.”

Birgenheier said they have been looking in open and active coal mines.

 “There’s a significant investment by the U.S. Department of Energy to do this research,” she said. She noted a specific need for what are called critical minerals or elements in modern technology products.

“We don’t have a lot of domestic mining resources for that. There’s been evidence that actually coal deposits do a pretty good job of preserving some of these heavier, rare earth elements. Those are particularly valuable in a lot of different modern products in clean energy transition. There’s been some previous work, especially in the Appalachian region that shows that those resources are there, but there was really no investigation across Utah and western Colorado.”

This research prompted the University of Utah team to look at active coal mines across Utah and Colorado.

Professor Birgenheier said being allowed to enter these open mines was critical to determining if the minerals were present.

“The idea is if a mine is already open, are there any other secondary value products like this that could help us?”

The next step in this process will be determining how much of these minerals are available above and below these coal seams to decide if it’s worth trying to mine them.

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Rare earth minerals found in Utah, Colorado, are critical for cleaner energy sources