NMT Lands Federal Grant to Study Rare Earth Elements in Coal-Rich Areas

May 24, 2021

More than 15 scientists across campus will be involved in the project, along with 8 grad students

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SOCORRO, N.M. – New Mexico Tech has landed a new grant from the Department of Energy for studying rare earth elements in coal beds in north New Mexico.

The grant is for $1,483,787 over two years, with Dr. Navid Mojtabai of the Mineral Engineering faculty serving as principal investigator. The two co-P.I.’s on the project are Dr. William Anmopah, scientist at the Petroleum Recovery Research Center, and Dr. Ginger McLemore, economic geologist at the N.M. Bureau of Geology who specializes in rare earth elements.

The project will involve more than 15 staff scientists, and provide funding for three graduate students. About eight undergraduates will be employed and get hands-on research experience.

McLemore said that this funding opportunity will assist researchers at New Mexico Tech to support and train junior staff and students. We will be collaborating with the national laboratories and the Navajo Nation. This type of research keeps New Mexico Tech at the forefront of research in mineral resources, especially critical minerals.

The field campaign will include two coal-rich regions: the San Juan Basin and the Raton Basins.  This project is a collaboration between NMT, two national labs in the state (Los Alamos and Sandia), San Juan College, and SonoAsh LLC.

The project aims to determine the rare earth elements and critical minerals resource potential in coal and associated stratigraphic units, including mine waste products, in the San Juan and Raton basins of northern New Mexico. The state has significant coal resources in the state that are currently used to generate electricity.

Critical minerals are essential to the N.M. economy. Most critical minerals are imported into the United States and supply disruptions are likely, in many cases because the country supplying the mineral are politically unstable or has a history of imposing export quotas or other constraints in supply.

REE are one of many critical minerals identified by the Federal government and are used in computers, batteries, electric vehicles, wind turbines, solar panels, and numerous other products.

This project has three main scientific goals:

(1) Identify and quantify the distribution of REE and CM in coal beds and related stratigraphic units in the San Juan and Raton basins,

(2) Identify and characterize the sources of REE and CM, and

(3) Evaluate the basinal industry infrastructure and determine the economic viability of industrial upgrading in New Mexico.

Ideally, CM and REE could be recovered from coal before burning to make electricity in the power plants as well as recovering CM and REE from the resulting ash and other waste products after burning coal.

This project also is important to New Mexico because future mining of REE and CM will directly benefit the economy of NM. Furthermore, it is crucial to re-establish a domestic source of REE and CM minerals in the U.S. to help secure the nation’s clean energy future, reducing the vulnerability of the U.S. to material shortages related to national defense, and to maintain our global technical and economic competitiveness. Another aspect of this project is the training of the future workforce because students at New Mexico Tech and San Juan College will be hired to work on this project.  

– NMT –