The Future of Rare Earth Elements May Lie with Coal

For instance, NETL manages five bench-scale and four pilot-scale projects, initiated in March of 2016, that are making significant progress in developing high-performance, economically viable and environmentally benign technologies to recover rare earths from domestic coal and coal byproducts. Within the first six months of the projects, partners achieved a production of ≥ 2 percent by weight REE pre-concentrates from coal-based materials. In addition, more than 90 percent REE recovery has been demonstrated from acid mine drainage materials.

These projects included sampling and characterization of REE-bearing feedstocks, laboratory testing of processes to extract rare earths from those feedstocks, and design of bench-scale and pilot-scale systems to recover REEs from the feedstocks. They involved research leaders in academia and industry, including Battelle Memorial Institute, Duke University, the University of North Dakota, the University of Wyoming, West Virginia University, Physical Sciences Inc., the Southern Research Institute, the Tusaar Corporation and the University of Kentucky. Project researchers are working to identify innovative processes using existing separation technologies and process designs that will address the environmental, safety and health impacts of byproducts, and then optimize the overall economics of the REE separation and recovery process.

Additionally, NETL manages five other projects that began in October of 2016, to identify and characterize domestic coal and coal byproducts containing high rare earth concentrations. These projects consist of work to identify, locate, field-sample and analyze materials from various regions of the country, including coal basins such as the Illinois Basin, Northern Appalachian in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Central Appalachian in West Virginia and the Raton Basin in Colorado and New Mexico.

Recently, NETL has further expanded its external work by selecting new projects to design systems that will achieve small-scale production of salable REEs in the form of final products such as individual rare earth compounds. It is expected that one or more of these projects will be in operation by 2020.

According to NETL REE technology manager Mary Anne Alvin, “As the current REE program grows, we anticipate that the REE research portfolio will expand from not only research conducted in-house and with our current external partners, but also to research involvement with other national laboratories and additional small business innovation efforts.”

Read more about NETL’s in-house research and external projects on the  Rare Earth EDX Database and NETL web site.

Mary Anne Alvin is REE technology manager, Evan Granite is research engineer and Charles Miller is project manager at the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory.