Economic Development, Government, and Higher Education

Federal grant aids mineral researchers

Minerals on the list essential for creating energy-efficient light bulbs, smartphones, robots.

July 5, 2019
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WMU Minerals
Hundreds of thousands of rock cores at WMU hold information about minerals that can be found in Michigan. Courtesy WMU

Researchers from the Michigan Geological Survey at Western Michigan University are working to record information about the existence of mineral resources throughout the state. 

A federal grant is allowing the researchers to assess the state's potential for supplying 35 minerals.

The hope is they will uncover the potential value of mineral resources in the state, which in turn could stimulate private interest and private investment in mining the minerals, according to William Harrison III, principal investigator for the grant and director of the Michigan Geological Repository for Research and Education, which he founded in 1982.

Harrison said the assessment is the first step to a potential new area of economic development.

"You know one way that you can generate new wealth in any region is to extract some new resources out of the ground. That would build the economy up and create jobs," he said.

The new grant stems from an executive order signed by President Donald Trump that calls for a federal strategy to ensure a reliable and secure supply of critical minerals. 

About 40 state geological surveys received grants to assess the known and potential distribution and quality of critical mineral resources in their states. WMU received $35,000, the largest amount possible, from the U.S. Geological Survey in late May.

All the information gathered will go into a national database that anyone can access, Harrison said.

"Companies would love to go out and do these kinds of projects, but they don't know what's there, and they don't have the time or the resources to really go out and start looking in every state,” Harrison said.

With this information gathered for them, companies could then analyze the economic benefit and recruit investors.

Minerals on the list are essential for producing such products as energy-efficient light bulbs, washing machines, smartphones, robots, electric cars and missile systems.

"We use tons of stuff in our daily lives, and it's all related to technology. But we don't really understand or appreciate where all the things come from that make up that technology," Harrison said. 

Amid an escalating trade war, China increased tariffs to 25% on rare earth mineral exports to the U.S. and has threatened to stop these shipments altogether.

America was in a vulnerable position even before the current trade tensions. In 2010, China temporarily stopped exporting rare earth minerals to Japan. China had started imposing trade limits on rare earth exports at the turn of this century, scrapping them in 2015 after a World Trade Organization ruling.

"These kinds of materials are so important to our technology and our everyday activities that we just can't afford not to have them. So, the president issued an executive order," Harrison said.

More than three decades ago, China embarked on a plan to capture the world market for rare earth minerals, in part by imposing few environmental or labor restrictions on mining companies and processors, Harrison said. It mines or processes about 95% of the global supply of rare earth minerals and has an estimated one-third of the world's rare earth reserves.

The U.S. has only one rare earth minerals mine, the Mountain Pass mine in California. Production there has stalled periodically because of closures due to contamination issues and more recently, bankruptcy. And despite reopening in 2018, the mine sends its output to China for final processing.

Harrison said the U.S. is rich in geological natural resources, including a lot of the rare earth minerals that have magnetic and optical properties useful in making electronics more efficient. But it also imports these and other critical minerals, he said. 

"I guess we just assume that we have all these different mineral products that we need. And it turns out we don't,” Harrison said. “They're there, but because other countries have put more emphasis on them, they're developing their resources a little more efficiently than we are."

Some of these minerals, such as germanium, lanthanum and yttrium, actually aren't rare, he said, but just occur in low concentrations and are mixed with other minerals. That makes them difficult and environmentally challenging to extract. Even though many are used for green technologies, they take huge amounts of water to process and can leave behind tons of toxic waste, Harrison said. 

“So, most of the U.S. operations that wanted to do this were sort of stuck in environmental regulations,” he said, but China’s more lax environmental regulations allowed companies there to take advantage of those production opportunities. 

“There's no doubt that when you extract stuff out of the earth, you create a mess,” Harrison said. “It’s a matter of doing it in the right way. There is technology around to do it. It just costs more.”

At WMU, Harrison is leading a research team comprised of John Yellich, director of the Michigan Geological Survey; Peter Voice, research scientist and geologist; Joyashish Thakurta, economic geologist; Jennifer Trout, data manager; and several graduate and undergraduate students.

He said there was an effort around World War II to locate some of these minerals, and though that effort waned after the war, it produced some information researchers can look through now.

The team will spend the next year cataloging and preserving unpublished and previously published critical minerals information from that era and others by digging through materials at MGRRE.

As part of the USGS assessment grant, WMU will make its findings available to the public, as well as private companies. The same will be true for a proposed federal grant project Yellich said the Michigan Geological Survey expected to receive last week. The project would be done in partnership with Michigan Technological University and map a 110-square-mile area of Dickinson County to confirm the geology of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

One research team member already has made a “startling” discovery: natural graphite, a designated critical mineral, can be found in the Upper Peninsula's Baraga County.

Trout mined that long-forgotten morsel from information in a collection of unpublished materials MGRRE received from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. The materials include reports, handwritten notes, permits and other documents dating back 50 years.

She said there is a 30-mile narrow stretch of graphite that was mined in 1911 and 1912 by a couple of different companies in open pit mines. 

“I don't know what else we're going to find,” Trout said. “A lot of these documents that I've been going through are not published anywhere. So, this project will really help us get information back out to the public."

Voice is spearheading the assessment grant's review of published information about Michigan's critical minerals, which is being added to an extensive Michigan Geology bibliography he previously compiled. It contains about 7,800 references to publications, with about 100 so far dealing with critical minerals.

That database also contains numerous references to potash — potassium chloride — an essential plant nutrient and key ingredient in fertilizer. MGRRE helped rediscover this salt in Michigan several years ago in another forgotten mineral deposit located under Osceola and Mecosta counties. The deposit features the purest and highest-grade potash being produced globally and is in the process of being developed by a commercial firm.

Once researchers have a better idea of where other minerals are located, Harrison said they will be able to go out and perform field studies.

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