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By Stephen Lee
Government scientists and university researchers are racing to find a way to extract rare earth elements from coal waste, an effort that is now also drawing the interest of the congressional coal caucus.
If the scientists can crack the code, the technology could boost demand for coal and simultaneously wean the U.S. off foreign sources of the metals, which are used to make high-tech products such as cell phones, computers, wind turbines and medical devices.
But environmentalists say that any efforts to revitalize coal also will encourage more pollution of streams and rivers, more coal dust released into the air and more mountaintop removal mining.
China produces some 95 percent of the world’s rare earth elements, which consist of 17 different metals. No rare earth mines have operated in the U.S. since the Mountain Pass Mine in California went bankrupt and shut down in 2015.
Rare earth elements can be found in coal, as well as in the clay surrounding coal mines and coal waste products such as acid mine drainage and fly ash. But they exist only in small amounts.
For example, it could take about 4 tons of coal to get about 1 kilogram of rare earths, enough for a single hybrid car, said Jack Dever, chief technology officer and executive vice president of the Mid-Atlantic Technology, Research and Innovation Center, a research and development firm in South Charleston, W.Va.
Researchers are working on two main fronts: one, to develop an economical means of removing the elements from coal and concentrate them in usable amounts, and two, to find where the most promising reserves are in the country, said Mary Anne Alvin, director of the National Energy Technology Laboratory’s rare earth elements program.
Brute-force technology to separate the metals from the coal already exists, but it can only remove between 50 percent and 60 percent of the rare earth elements, Dever said. To be economically viable, at least 90 percent of the elements must be recovered.
NETL, a branch of the Department of Energy, has been sponsoring the research since 2014. Alvin told Bloomberg BNA that the results so far have been “phenomenal.”
“We’re at the cutting edge in terms of putting together conventional techs that go from cradle to grave, from start to finish,” Alvin said. “We’re a little early on to think we’re ready to go commercial. As we move forward, I’m sure we’ll think about optimizing the conventional technologies or making them more efficient, then understanding them in terms of costs and economics.”
Meanwhile, members of Congress from coal states are also starting to pay attention to the potential of rare earth elements.
Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-W.Va.) has emerged as one of the nascent technology’s top cheerleaders. Late last month, Jenkins hosted a daylong public meeting in Charleston, W.Va., to discuss the potential of extracting rare earth minerals from coal, and as a member of the Appropriations Committee, he helped secure $15 million for NETL’s rare earth elements research program in the 2017 omnibus package.
“I think there’s incredible potential,” Jenkins told Bloomberg BNA. “We know that the demand for rare earth elements will continue to grow at significant pace, and we know that right now, China has a corner on the market.”
Jenkins further said rare earth elements are “a potential lifeline” for the sagging coal sector.
“While no one may have been talking about rare earth elements 50 years ago, they sure are today,” Jenkins said. “And guess what? They are in abundant supply in coal. We just have to unlock them.”
The coal industry is unsurprisingly enthusiastic about the possibility that its product could be used for something other than generating electricity or making steel.
“I think [rare earth element technology] can support sustained mining and be an important complement that can literally take possible liabilities and turn them to assets,” William Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, told Bloomberg BNA.
But practically no companies are actively trying to extract rare earth elements from coal waste yet, Dever, the Mid-Atlantic Technology, Research and Innovation Center chief technology officer, told Bloomberg BNA.
“Primarily that’s because the people who have the material, the coal companies, are not experienced in doing the mineral extraction work,” Dever said. “That’s not what they do. It’s not their core competency or their market. And mining companies, who aren’t the people who dig coal out of the ground, don’t deal with the materials. So there’s not really a company at the front end who does this work. To push this over the goal line, somebody would have to take ownership to do that.”
Right now that role is being played by NETL, Dever said. Several universities throughout coal country, such as West Virginia University, the University of Kentucky and the University of Wyoming, are carrying out their own research, in part using funding from NETL.
That’s adequate for now, but in the long run, governments and universities won’t be enough to get the technology off the ground, said Mike Fulton, director of public affairs and advocacy at the Asher Agency, which has West Virginia clients, though none involved in rare earth elements.
“This could revitalize the coal industry, but you’re going to need private companies to step up to the plate, or else it’s just an idea that was worth exploring but didn’t lead to reality,” Fulton told Bloomberg BNA. “The true test is for it to become privatized and for the private sector to follow the lead of the public sector.”
Environmentalists challenge the notion that the presence of rare earth elements in coal means more coal should be mined.
Bruce Nilles, senior director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, noted that states like Pennsylvania and Ohio are already home to many coal refuse piles that aren’t being used for anything.
“The bottom line is, you don’t need to mine more coal to do [rare earth element extraction], because between the waste coal that’s strewn across the landscape in piles, there’s plenty,” Nilles told Bloomberg BNA.
The Sierra Club has received funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization founded by Michael Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg L.P. Bloomberg BNA is an affiliate of Bloomberg L.P.
To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington, D.C. at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Connolly at PConnolly@bna.com
Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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