BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota coal companies are looking into solving the nation’s supply problem of rare earth elements.

Rare earth elements make up a $7 trillion market and support $500 to $600 billion in other industries globally, The Bismarck Tribune (http://bit.ly/2uJndKr ) reported.

Magnets, hard drives, alloys, batteries, lasers, wind turbines and solar panels depend on rare earth elements — and could, in turn, depend on lignite coal.

“They’re used in pretty much all of our modern electronics,” said Steve Benson, associate vice president for research at the Energy and Environmental Research Center in Grand Forks.

The elements are also needed to make night vision goggles and hard coatings.

“That turns it into a national security issue,” said Benson. “That’s one of reasons there’s a lot of funding for this.”

Now, the Lignite Research Council is funding research to find the value in lignite coal after 60-million-year-old volcanic eruptions and associated ash led to a concentration of elements in North Dakota.

“There’s a lot of work going on to come up with environmentally benign ways to recover and purify rare earth elements,” said Benson.

Mike Holmes is the vice president of research and development for the Lignite Energy Council. He said the concentration of elements leads people to think that coal is a precious resource rather than a dirty source of energy.

The council recently funded $280,000 for the next phase of a project at the research center in Grand Forks.

“The challenge that we have is we don’t produce any in the U.S,” Benson said.

The U.S. imports the elements mostly from China, which controls 85 to 90 percent of the world’s supply. That supply is expected to run out in 15 years.


Information from: Bismarck Tribune, http://www.bismarcktribune.com