Manchin: United States needs a push to develop critical minerals for technology

U.S. Senate Energy Chairman Joe Manchin kicked off a committee hearing today by saying the United States needs a push to produce the kind of critical minerals that are key elements of modern technology like lithium batteries.

Rare earth elements are a key component of electronics, aerospace, automotive and other products, particularly rechargeable batteries. China is the dominant producer, and the rest of the world is trying to catch up.

Manchin and other members of the U.S. Energy and Natural Resources said the United States must compete more aggressively. They spoke at a hearing on the scope and scale of critical mineral demand.

“More action is going to be necessary to get supply chains — including mining, processing, manufacturing and more — where they need to be domestically to keep up with the growing demand for these critical minerals instead of increasing our reliance on China,” Manchin, a Democrat, said in his opening remarks today.

He noted that much of the demand over the coming years will spring from electric vehicle batteries. Manchin said China’s dominance over critical minerals makes him cautious about a quick pivot to electric vehicles.

“With numbers like these it is frustrating to hear calls for a swifter transition to electrified transportation to reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” Manchin said. “We cannot replace one unreliable foreign supply chain with another and think it’s going to solve our problems.”

West Virginia’s Legislature spent time during the most recent legislative session considering several bills intended to promote the production of rare earth elements. 

One, House Bill 4003, passed the Legislature and became law without the governor’s signature. That bill is meant to encourage exploration and capitalization of West Virginia’s potential for recovering valuable rare earth elements and other critical materials from mine drainage.

West Virginia University’s Water Research Institute found that treating one of the biggest sources of pollution in the United States, acid mine drainage, is a rich source of rare earth elements.

Paul Ziemkiewicz,

Paul Ziemkiewicz, the institute’s director, has testified both before the state Legislature and before the U.S. Senate Energy Committee. He spoke earlier this week on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”

One strategy is to extract rare earth elements from mine sites.

“Nature’s done the hard work for us. You basically have a mined-out mass of material. If it’s an acid-mine drainage producing site, that means there’s free acid on site — and acid is what is required to leach the rare earths out of the rock,” he said. “So that delivers all that rare earth in solution already at the point of discharge.”

Ziemkiewicz described the potential of commercial application.

“That’s the idea that you could actually recover a lot of your maintenance and operations costs for these acid mine drainage plants,” he said. “You can recover that by selling the rare earth elements.”


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