The objective of our project is to reduce our nation's reliance on imported Rare Earth and Critical Minerals (REE-CM) by establishing Alaska's resources as competitive sources of supply.
Our team has documented encouraging REE-CM concentrations in preliminary studies of coal at two sites, but otherwise Alaska has not seen a systematic analysis of its resource potential. One aspect of this project is to perform a set of broad basinal assessments of Alaska's Carbon Ore, Rare Earth and Critical Minerals (CORE-CM) found in several of Alaska's basins. Included in our analysis will be two obvious basins: (1) the basin hosting Alaska's only operating coal mine, and (2) the basin hosting North America's largest large-flake graphite deposit. We will also investigate opportunities to create high value, non-fuel products from carbon ore in basins associated with REE-CM resources to increase their economic potential.
Alaska contains many and varied CORE-CM basins, each with its own set of challenges. Eighty percent of Alaska is without roads, and an even greater area does not have access to the only power grid in the state, connecting Fairbanks to Anchorage. Developing a new CORE-CM mine will be challenging, and must consider factors in addition to mineral content within a basin. Therefore, we will establish a Priority Matrix for ranking CORE-CM basins, which will consider the quality of the CORE-CM content, access to infrastructure or ability to build it, readiness of technology to exploit the resource in that location, environmental factors, and market potential. Using our proposed methodology, we will provide the nation a pathway for assessing and developing Alaska's vast REE-CM potential.
Coal is widely distributed throughout Alaska, yet comparatively little modern geological work has been focused on coal resource characterization, and by extension, associated REE-CM concentrations. Our Analytical Strategy is primarily described in the Project Discussion section. Working with mineral-rights owners (Federal, State, and Alaska Native Corporations), this project will greatly add to the body of knowledge about Alaska's carbon ore geology through synthesis of disparate legacy data and targeted new sampling and stratigraphic work, ultimately creating a geologic foundation to assess and interpret the REE-CM endowment of Alaska.
Alaska has one active coal mine and six, small (~20 MWe, each) combined heat and power (CHP) plants that use run-of-mine coal; hence these are the primary opportunities to pursue coal-related waste streams. In addition to UCM, several world-class hard rock mines generate waste streams. We will pursue coal-related waste streams from UCM and CHP plants, and from hard-rock mines.
Alaska's few organized boroughs provide traditional government services such as roads. Unorganized territory includes more than 80% of the state's area, and has fewer than 20% of the population. In other words, Alaska's population density in much of the state is too small to pay for infrastructure. Therefore, trade-off analyses will be a part of working with the business community when creating Development Scenarios. This will include consideration of local production for most mine inputs versus building infrastructure and establishing long, costly, and often fragile supply chains to support mining operations.
Generally, in the lower 48, power lines can be strung, and workers can commute daily from home. In contrast, Alaska's mineral-extraction workers often work a rotational schedule and live in remote towns or camps, commonly powered by diesel-fuel generators. Such hardships generally lead to research, and ultimately to business opportunities. The AK-TIC's role in Alaska will be to facilitate research leading to economic development.
By creating Development Scenarios in consultation with industry, information gaps can be identified, and needed technological and efficiency improvements will be documented for future research (see Self-Sufficiency, Project Discussion). Despite its geographic challenges, Alaska has great potential for creating new advances in infrastructure development, environmental protection, and efficiency improvements because it must: "necessity is the mother of invention."
We will conduct analysis and lab work to consider what improvements can be made for each aspect involved in rare earth production and processing including: (1) mining; (2) host mineral beneficiation and pre-concentration processes; (3) acidic or alkaline solution and roasting processes for mobilization of REEs from host ore; (4) extraction processes for separating and concentrating REEs from aqueous acidic or alkaline solutions (i.e., solvent extraction or ion exchange); and (5) rare-earth oxide reduction to metals. Current technologies have energy- and cost-intensive process inefficiencies coupled with environmental and safety concerns. Furthermore, limited infrastructure requires that technologies be modular and field deployable. Following the Initial Technology Assessment and Field Development Plan, technological areas will be assessed for their utility on Alaska feedstocks during Phase 1.
The AK-TIC will provide a mechanism for establishing consensus among the industry and other stakeholders about high priority research needs, and provide partnering opportunities for technical support and developing technology. The AK-TIC will focus on developing and validating the tools and technologies needed to spur CORE-CM development in Alaska.
Alaska is endowed with a unique collection of sensitive ecosystems, home to resources that support both natural beauty and a subsistence lifestyle integral to the majority of Alaska's isolated and diverse communities. Alaska also possesses an impressive natural endowment of the nation's largest repository of mineral resources. While resource development activity proposed in Alaska is often scrutinized, it is our experience that bringing competing interests together during the conceptual phase of a project to define how environmental disturbance will be prevented, measured, regulated, and/or mitigated helps in creating strong support for the Development Scenarios.