MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Rare-earth elements are in common items, such as smartphones, tablets and computers. These elements are also used in the production of wings for the F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter.
The U.S. Department of Energy recently awarded $5 million to West Virginia University for researching rare-earth elements.
Rare-earth element mines in the United States have all gone out of business except one in Mountain Pass, California, which is partially owned by Chinese investors. The mine produces 16,000 tons of rare-earth elements every year, which go directly to China to produce consumer goods.
Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute at WVU says more than 95% of all rare earth elements are produced by China.
“We’re producing high-performance radar and aircraft and we’re relying on a foreign supplier that may be a competitor,” he said. “We’re in a very vulnerable situation. That’s not where you want to be if you’re a superpower.”
In recent years, the demand for rare earth elements has increased as technology-based products and processes have grown.
Ziemkiewicz said West Virginia coal mines could contribute to the strategic reserves of the United States.
“Just the OMEGA site near Morgantown could have up to $1 million in rare earth elements,” he said.
Ziemkiewicz noted the institute is partnering with Rockwell Automation and the Division of Environmental to build an acid mine drainage treatment plant near Mount Storm to continue its research.