BISMARCK, N.D. (KXNET) — The North Dakota Industrial Commission (NDIC) has lit the sparks for the beginning of a new research project — one focused on understanding North Dakota’s potential for the extraction of rare materials and other minerals from lignite, or brown coal — a dark brown to black combustible material formed by decomposed plant materials.

MicroBeam Technologies, Inc. is leading the project, in association and collaboration with North American Coal. The NDIC itself will invest up to $1,238,994 in the project, which has a total cost of roughly $2,478,000.

The goal of the effort, as stated by the NDIC, is to provide a strong understanding of the type, quantity, and shape of minerals in the state’s lignite mines in an attempt to determine if there is any opportunity for commercial recovery. As the need for rare earth elements — specifically for electronics like computers and phones, cars, and military applications — finding natural sources of these materials is essential. The US currently relies on imports for most of its rare elements, particularly from China.

The project aims to collect samples of drilled cores to classify and fully determine the amount and type of these critical minerals in ND coal mines, including not only the coal seams as well as the nearby associated clay and shale. Samples will be scanned on-site, as well as analyzed in the NDIC laboratory. It’s the commission’s hope that this program will help us get a better understanding of the minerals underneath North Dakota — as well as allow us to see the best ways to put them to use.

In a joint statement, members of the NDIC stated that “The lignite industry continues to pursue new uses for North Dakota lignite, and rare earth elements and other critical minerals present another opportunity to responsibly develop our state’s vast resources. This project is one in a long line of opportunities to support the lignite industry that provides reliable, affordable electricity and is so important to the state and its citizens.”