Rare earth elements found at Pennington Mountain

WINTERVILLE – Significant geological findings in Aroostook County could have major implications for Maine’s economy, and national security.

Aroostook county is being highlighted for it’s importance to the nation’s resource economy due to the rare earth elements of niobium and zirconium being found in the area of Pennington mountain, which is a remote summit about 40 miles northwest of Presque Isle.

Chunzeng Wang, a Professor of Earth and Environmental studies at University of Maine at Presque Isle, played a key role in the discovery process.

He explained, “why rare earth elements are so critical, when I say critical I talk to friends – they think gold is critical, no no no, gold is not critical. You know [for] economic development, [and the] defense industry, they don’t need gold, they need critical minerals.”

Amber Whittaker, a geologist for the Maine Geological Survey, said, “we were not expecting to find this type of mineral occurrence, so that means there could be more.”

Thanks to years of research conducted by scientists from state and federal organizations, the area could be considered for its mining potential, which would reduce U.S. mineral import dependence.

Anji Shaw, a geophysicist for the U.S. Geological Survey, explained why rare earth elements are so important.

Saying, “so for example uses of critical minerals include your cellphones and computers, you can’t have those without say for example rare earth elements. We need the batteries that power our cellphones. Renewable energy relies on critical minerals such as the magnets that are in wind turbines or the materials that are in solar panels. They’re also important for advanced defense systems and advanced electronics so they’re important for a security aspect as well.”

The federal government provided $320 million through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, which in part, made this research possible.

Shaw furthered, “with that increase in funding, we’re able to cover a lot more ground.”

Through the use of low-flying airplane data collection, scientists were able to detect the minerals – and then take samples and send specimens to labs to be tested.

“What we’re hoping of course, is that this successful discovery… will result in the [United States Geological Survey] being interested in flying more geophysical surveys across Maine, and you know, making more exciting discoveries,” explained Whittaker. 

“This is more about the discovery of a special rock, with you know critical minerals. Mining… to mine or not to mine, that’ll be a different story,” Wang said with a smile. 

It’s unlikely the minerals will be mined any time soon, but in the meantime the scientists have funding to keep searching for rare earth elements around the state.

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