A research study has identified coalfields in the East Kootenay region of B.C as being a potential source for rare earth elements, which are used in the production of electric car batteries and wind turbines.
The study, completed by researchers from the University of British Columbia and funded by non-profit geology organization Geoscience B.C., examined more than 100 samples from coal deposits in East Kootenay and found elevated levels of certain rare earth elements, predominantly monzonite, xenotime and zircon.
Average levels ranged from 190 parts per million (ppm) to 400 ppm per sample. The highest was 686 ppm, well above the U.S Department of Energy’s 2016 extraction threshold of 300 ppm.
“It’s been known for quite a long time that there are some concentrations of rare earth elements in coal deposits, but looking specifically at what kind of level those concentrations are, that’s something that’s a newer area of focus,” said Geoscience vice-president Richard Truman.
Truman said that the locations where the samples were taken cannot be disclosed.
“The companies that are involved with these projects don’t want to give that information away,” he stated.
While the results of the study show the amount and kinds of rare earth elements present in the region, research is far from over. Geoscience recently launched another study that will examine the material left behind at old mine sites for the presence of critical minerals, which would include rare earth elements alongside many other substances.
“Going from a piece of research that says there may be economic concentrations to actually extracting these things is a long process. There’s a lot of hoops to jump through,” said Truman.
“There’s a lot of mining infrastructure in the Kootenays already, so [companies] they would be able to use some of that, but there’s a lot more work to be done,” he added.
There’s been a push for Canada to develop its own critical minerals industry to support the burgeoning market of electric vehicles, and wind and solar power. The federal government has released a Critical Minerals Strategy, that emphasizes the need to further develop infrastructure necessary to support the transition to new forms of energy.
The document contains a list of 31 minerals that the government considers critical to attracting domestic and international investment. Rare earth elements are listed as sixth most important, behind lithium, graphite, nickle, cobalt and copper.
Last month, the provincial government announced it had entered the first phase of a separate Critical Mineral Strategy that would pave the way to a transition to new forms of energy. It listed a few key actions the government would take to help support the process, including providing more federal industry funding, taking steps to fast-track critical mineral projects, engaging with First Nations and encouraging mining companies in B.C to be more transparent about production methods through the Energy and Mines Digital Trust project.
“As the economy transitions to clean energy, B.C. and the world are going to need critical minerals to build electric vehicles, solar panels, wind turbines, and more,” remarked Minister of Energy Mines and Low Carbon Innovation Josie Osborne in a press release. “With rich mineral deposits, B.C. has a generational opportunity to drive growth and create new jobs for people across the entire value chain of critical minerals, from mining to manufacturing to recycling.”
Truman said the drive to develop home-grown industry has been spurred by the realization that Canada may not always be able to rely on foreign countries for a consistent supply of rare earth elements.
“There are plenty of rare earth element mines around the world. Some of them are in jurisdictions that the U.S.A and Canada has really good relationships with. There’s a high proportion of rare earth elements mined and processed in China, so there are some questions around making sure we have access to rare earth elements that we might need,” he explained.
“Manufacturing plants are going to need raw materials and it just makes sense for them to be local,” he added.