GILLETTE — As flagging coal and oil revenues continue to implode the Wyoming budget by hundreds of millions of dollars, momentum is growing for a more down-to-earth solution.
A push to resurrect the nation’s ability to produce and refine rare earth elements has made some people wonder whether that also could be the phoenix that rises from the ashes of the Powder River Basin’s legacy coal mining industry.
More specifically, from the ash produced by area coal-fired power plants. Typically a waste product of burning coal to make electricity, coal ash also contains rare earths, which are elements with unique properties that are essential for many technologies like electronics, health care equipment and national defense.
For decades, extracting and refining those elements in a cost-effective way has been out of reach in Wyoming and the United States.
A push in recent years is trying to change that — and a step toward making that happen came this week with the announcement of a $1.62 million, three-year project to put a pilot plant to extract rare earth elements from coal ash in Campbell County.