The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) has kicked off a new Rare Earth Elements (REE) bioengineering research program encouraging US scientists to engineer a new REE supply chain by using ‘biomining’ approaches through the Environmental Microbes as a Bio-Engineering Resource (EMBER) program.

Not only is biomining more environmentally friendly than common processing methods, it would allow domestic REE separation and purification.

That’s a key step on the path to lessen US vulnerability to and dependence on China.

And American Rare Earths’ (ASX:ARR) wholly owned subsidiary Western Rare Earths will be supplying feedstock to the researchers seeking funding from DARPA.


Non-volatile feedstock from La Paz

The company has provided REE to three research teams, including researchers from US national laboratories and elite American ‘Research One’ universities applying to the EMBER program.

The feedstock is coming from the company’s La Paz project in Arizona and the Holleck Creek project in Wyoming – some of the few REE mineral deposits that qualify for use in the program because they are non-radioactive (no thorium) and give access to almost all 17 rare earths metals in a single source.

This means the researchers do not have to manage potentially radioactive waste as with other REE feedstocks.

ARR managing director Keith Middleton said it’s the company’s US-based leadership which has enabled relationships with key US REE researchers in universities and the national labs to be developed.

“Timely engagement with US Government programs has put the company in the mix as a valued potential provider of REE feedstock to the emerging US REE domestic supply chain which has become a critical objective of successive US administrations,” he said.

EMBER focusing on domestic REE

Middleton said the EMBER initiative demonstrates the strategic importance of the company’s REE deposits to the US supply chain – with the REEs critical components to many Department of Defense (DoD) systems, including lasers, precision-guided weapons, fuel cells, and magnets for motors.

“We believe that the EMBER program’s focus on a strategy for REEs using domestic sources is an interesting indicator,” he said.

“We are not aware of a competitor that is supplying multiple teams to this program.

“This provides us with a point of difference, and we like our chances of potentially more than one team being awarded significant funding for their research using our mineralised ore.”

In return for supporting the program WRE expects the research may help isolate the most effective and environmentally friendly extraction methods for its REE mineralised ore and that it will secure the rights to any new technology – potentially saving the company money in the future by domestically processing, separating, and purifying rather than offshoring to China.


Supporting US supply chain security

“America is looking to build a domestic supply chain. America needs to find an alternative supply to China, and that’s just a fact,” Middleton said.

“Our projects support supply chain security for the North American market.

“We remain focused on providing a mixture of concentrate for processing, separation and purification that will take place in North America.

“As we understand the mixture, the metallurgy that sits within our deposit, we will understand that composition.

“Once we understand the composition of our mixed, rare-earth element concentrate, then we can put a price on it.”

Middleton said the scale of La Paz continues to exceed expectations.

“We recently released an exploration target where we set a range between 700-900 million tonnes of contained rare earth elements,” he said.

“That confirms our view that La Paz in Arizona is a world class deposit in a mining friendly jurisdiction – the Arizona Mining Association supports the development of the project.”

‘Three to five years’ before processing capabilities catch up

But there may be a bit of a lag while the country develops its processing capabilities.

Middleton said there have been several executive orders from the US administration that has identified this is a critical government project and a critical initiative.

“I wouldn’t bet against the US developing that capability – they are determined to create that self-sufficiency,” he said.

“I would give this a three-to-five-year time horizon and that works extremely well, with the development of our project.

“The three latest presidential administrations – Biden, Trump and Obama – have signed multiple executive orders, and declared hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to support the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense programs.

“To build this processing capability, and they will spend whatever it takes.

“And they’re going to wake up one morning looking for feedstock and say ‘wow, look at these guys!’”