Researchers at West Virginia University have partnered on a nearly $1 million grant from the United States Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory on the development of a mobile plant facility for the recovery of rare elements that could breathe life back into West Virginia’s coal industry.
Aaron Noble, assistant professor of mining engineering, and John Herbst, Robert E. Murray Chair and Professor of Mining Engineering, will collaborate with researchers from the University of Kentucky and Virginia Tech to develop a facility that can efficiently recover rare earth elements present in coal.
According to Noble, there are 17 rare earth elements that are in increasingly high demand for their use in everything from batteries to magnets, cell phones and defense applications. Their concentration scarcity in other ores has impeded economical extraction.
“All of the rare earth elements are essential to modern life, but they are very poorly concentrated in nature,” said Noble. “One place where we do find significant concentrations of these rare earth elements is in coal.”
The U.S. has 10.9 million tons of rare earth resources in coal deposits located in just five western and four eastern states, including Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia, according to the U.S. Geological Survey Coal Quality Database.
“Some of the ‘heavy’ rare earth elements are particularly valuable and scarce, and while coal contains all rare earth elements to some degree, it often has a substantial amount of these heavy elements that command a higher value,” said Noble.
The researchers will be designing the entire processing facility from the ground up using advanced separation technologies that have been proven in the laboratory.
“Because rare earth recovery from coal has never been done outside the laboratory, we have to start at the very bottom,” said Noble. “We will use the methods proven to work in the lab and scale them up. If successful, this pilot facility will provide a clear path to future commercial deployments.”
Commercial deployment could mean the creation of hundreds of jobs for the suffering mining industry in the Mountain State.
“A new rare earth industry could certainly invigorate the West Virginia coal mining industry, bringing additional revenue to coal producers and also eliminating some of the current waste streams by turning them into valuable products,” said Herbst. “The end result will be a process that is economic and environmentally benign, but most importantly something that will benefit the people in West Virginia and other coal producing states.”
Along with DOE funding, more than $300,000 will come from other project partners. The team will work with industrial participants including Arch Coal, Blackhawk Mining, Bowie Refining, Eriez Manufacturing and Minerals Refining Company. If Phase I is successful, Phase II will involve construction and testing of the mobile facility.
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