The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) selected four projects to move to a second phase of research in efforts to advance recovery of rare earth elements (REE) from coal and coal byproducts.

DOE will invest $17.4 million to develop and test REE recovery systems that were selected and designed under phase 1 of a program through DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy.

Coal byproducts may contain usable amounts of REEs. Coal byproducts may contain usable amounts of REEs. REEs are a series of chemical elements found in the Earth’s crust that are essential components of many technologies, including electronics, computer and communication systems, transportation, health care and national defense. The demand for REEs has grown significantly over recent years, stimulating an emphasis on developing economically feasible approaches for domestic REE recovery.

These four selected research projects will focus on developing and validating cost-effective and environmentally benign approaches for REE recovery.

The projects, expected to be completed by 2020, fall under two areas of interest: bench-scale technology to economically separate, extract, and concentrate mixed REEs from coal and coal byproducts, including aqueous effluents; and pilot-scale technology to economically separate, extract and concentrate mixed REEs from coal and coal byproduct solids.

Two bench-scale projects were selected:

  • The University of North Dakota Institute for Energy Studies will receive $2.75 million to use North Dakota subbituminous lignite coal and coal-related material as feedstock to test their recovery system. In addition to producing REEs, the team plans to recover other material from the lignite feedstock to produce one or more value-added products.
  • West Virginia University Research Corp. will receive $2.66 million to use acid mine drainage solids as a feedstock for recovery of REEs and other useful materials. The solids are from Northern Appalachian and Central Appalachian bituminous coal seams in West Virginia.

Two pilot scale-projects also were selected:

  • Physical Sciences Inc. of Andover, Massachusetts, will receive $6 million to use coal fly ash physically processed near Trapp, Kentucky as their feedstock. The fly ash is a byproduct of combusting Central Appalachian bituminous coal in a power plant boiler. The select portion will be shipped to a Pennsylvania location for subsequent processing to produce the final rare earth product. In addition, researchers will evaluate recovery of other useful materials from the fly ash.
  • The University of Kentucky Research Foundation will receive $6 million to use two sources of coal preparation (coal washing) byproducts as feedstock for recovery of REEs. The team will also recover dry, fine coal from the feedstock material. The first location for installation and testing of the pilot plant will be at a coal preparation plant in Perry County, Kentucky, that processes Central Appalachian bituminous coal. The second location for testing of the pilot plant will be at a coal preparation plant that processes Illinois Basin bituminous coal near Nebo, Kentucky.