BUTTE — Rare earth elements extracted from the toxic water of Butte’s Berkeley Pit could be used for important national defense projects and, believe it or not, green energy projects.
“You need what’s in these bags if you’re going to go green, so, once again, here in Butte, Montana, we’re producing green energy right here,” said Mark Thompson of Montana Resources.
Montana Resources has partnered with the Department of Defense, Montana Tech, and West Virginia University in a feasibility study to extract rare earth elements from the pit. This is part of a national effort to extract and process these elements domestically, since China has become the world leader in producing rare earth elements.
“From a DOD standpoint, we have a near pure adversary in China; you see it in the news all the time. We cannot be dependent on a potential adversary,” said Bob Olson with the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command.
For years, Montana Resources has been treating water from the pit at its Horseshoe Bend processing plant to remove heavy metals from the water.
“We’ve got the facility that we need, we have a need to treat the water and a whole bunch of win-wins are coming together and the potential that this brings is just huge,” said Thompson.
The project involves taking pit water from the processing plant and storing it in bags so eventually some of the water will evaporate away, leaving a sludge of material containing rare earth elements. The sludge will be taken to West Virginia to process it further into a concentrate of rare earth elements.
These elements would be used in defense systems and materials to produce renewable energy sources like electric cars and wind turbines.
If the study is successful, a potential processing plant could be set up at Montana Resources to begin extracting these elements full-time.
“I think this is an amazing project with Montana Resources here utilizing the Berkeley Pit as a source of material is a tremendous idea that needs to continue to move forward,” said Olson.