Best of the West: Ramping up production of rare earth minerals; developing blue hydrogen on tribal land; and reducing evaporation with solar panels

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting March 20, 2023. (Photos courtesy of Adobe Stock and Andreas Gäbler/Unsplash)

As demand for rare earth minerals skyrockets, Western states are making the most of their vast deposits of minerals to help the U.S. secure a domestic supply chain - an issue Western Governors have long advocated for

In February, Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon signed a bill that gives the Cowboy State the authority to permit and regulate parts of the rare earth and critical minerals industry. This legislation helped a new mining project discover what could be North America's largest known deposit of rare earth minerals. So far, the project has uncovered 17 of the most in-demand rare earth elements. 

Developers in Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains also recently discovered the highest-grade rare earth deposit in the U.S. The minerals neodymium and praseodymium account for most of the deposits and are necessary for modern technology and electric vehicles. 

With the groundbreaking of The Thacker Pass project in Nevada, the Silver State is also becoming a leader in the production of critical minerals. Hailed as the “Silicon Valley of Lithium,” the Thacker Pass project broke ground earlier this month with bipartisan support. Once operational, it could become the nation’s largest lithium mine.

With such rich deposits of critical minerals in Nevada, Governor Joe Lombardo unveiled plans to make the state the lithium capital of the U.S. The state is the only one capable of producing EVs from start to finish, including extracting and processing metals, refining with chemical manufacturing, making batteries, and reusing recycled materials from spent batteries.

During a recent tour of California, Governor Gavin Newsom also touted the state's capacity for sustainable lithium production at a development near the Salton Sea that will extract lithium rather than mine it. The facility, located in impoverished Imperial County, could generate hundreds of new jobs and preserve public health via sustainable mining. 

"This is one of the great economic transitions, one of the great economic opportunities to change the way we produce energy, to create clean energy ... and to reduce health care costs," he said. 

While there is very little mining of critical minerals in Oklahoma, they have leveraged their strategic position in the middle of the country to become a leader in manufacturing products using rare earth and critical minerals. USA Rare Earth recently announced that it will invest more than $100 million in a Stillwater-based facility that converts rare earth oxides into metals, magnets, and other specialty materials. 

Learn more about a roundtable moderated by Governor Kevin Stitt at WGA’s 2022 Winter Meeting that discussed the need for domestic production of critical minerals. 

Tribal Hydrogen Hub: In Montana, the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes created plans to help develop a four-state blue hydrogen fuel project. Last week, the U.S. Department of Energy announced a $750 million investment in the research and development of clean hydrogen. If the venture receives funding, it will include a carbon sequestration site and wind farm. 

Solar Panels over Water Canals: The Salt River Project, a utility in Arizona, is partnering with Arizona State University to assess the feasibility of installing solar panels over water canals to generate power and reduce evaporation. Researchers will also evaluate whether the coverings can reduce algae growth. Other regional solar canal developments include pilots managed by the Gila River Indian Community near Phoenix and California’s Turlock Irrigation District.

Growing Ancient Grains: Four years of research by the University of Wyoming Extension found that ancient wheat, including einkorn, emmer, and spelt, are viable crops for farmers to grow in the state. Ancient grains played a role in the state’s history during the early 1900s and are suitable for baking, cooking, and brewing beer. The findings could provide new economic opportunities for agricultural producers and serve as an alternative to malt barley and other wheat.

Mount Everest and Space: Scientists at the University of Colorado discovered human DNA in soil samples above 26,000 feet on Mount  Everest using advanced gene sequencing technology. The findings indicate that DNA may never leave high-elevation environments. Additionally, the study could impact space exploration. "We might find life on other planets and cold moons," said Steve Schmidt, senior author of the paper. "We'll have to be careful to make sure we're not contaminating them with our own [DNA].”

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