Back to Top
Skip to main content

Twitter Icon Linkedin Icon Facebook Icon Instagram Icon You Tube Icon Flickr Icon

REE Research image
An NETL-managed project is making impressive progress toward developing a state-of-the-art facility to produce a domestic supply of valuable mixed rare earth compounds from coal and coal byproducts. Fifteen lanthanide elements within the periodic table, including scandium and yttrium, are referred to as rare earth elements (REEs). They are essential components in many modern technologies — including cell phones, medical devices and national defense systems — yet challenging to extract, with China providing the bulk of the world’s supply. NETL is aggressively pursuing collaborative projects aimed at developing technologies capable of producing a domestic supply of high-purity, salable rare earth compounds from coal and coal byproducts by 2020. Ongoing work with the University of Kentucky (UK) focuses on Central Appalachian and Illinois Basin bituminous coal preparation plant refuse, which consists of low-quality coal, rock, clay and other waste materials that are sorted out during coal processing.
Dr McMahan Gray
NETL’s McMahan Gray, a physical scientist in Pittsburgh, has been named a recipient of a 2018 Innovation Award from The Pittsburgh Business Times. The honor, to be bestowed at a special ceremony later this year, recognizes extraordinary advances that challenge conventional thinking Gray is being honored for his work developing an effective, efficient and environmentally friendly technology that can remove carbon dioxide from air, remove lead from water, and recover rare earth elements (REEs) from water and waste streams. The Pittsburgh Business Times is a popular regional publication that features local business news about Pittsburgh and provides tools to help businesses grow, network and hire. This is the second year that the publication has honored regional innovators, companies and initiatives with its Innovation Awards. A University of Pittsburgh graduate, Gray created regenerative sorbents that serve as filters.  A sorbent is a material or substance that can collect molecules of another substance by sorption – the physical and chemical process of one substance becoming attached to another.
1022 REE
Rare earth elements (REEs) – an integral component of high-technology products from smart phones and lasers to computer hard drives, medical devices and national defense systems – are not that rare, they just appear in miniscule concentrations in a variety of sources, including water. NETL researchers have developed a way to effectively filter water from oil and natural gas well flowbacks, industrial waste streams, acid mine drainage and even municipal drinking water to recover valuable REEs. According to the U.S. Geological Society, in 2015, global REE reserves were 130,000,000 tons. At the same time, world REE demand is growing at about 8 percent annually. Because natural water systems like rivers, groundwater, seawater and even acid mine drainage streams are viable sources for REE recovery, NETL researchers adapted an innovation they developed originally to capture carbon dioxide ( CO2) from coal burning power plants to address the REE recovery challenge.
Seventeen elements within the periodic table are considered REEs. Rare earths are highly valuable because they are essential components of modern technological devices, such as cell phones and computer hard drives.
Acid mine drainage (AMD) – a waste byproduct that must be treated – is an inevitable trade-off for the affordable, abundant and reliable power derived from coal mining operations. But AMD now offers potential economic opportunities, thanks to emerging technology being developed in collaboration with NETL to extract rare earth elements (REEs). Seventeen elements within the periodic table are considered REEs. Rare earths are highly valuable because they are essential components of modern technological devices, such as cell phones and computer hard drives. They are also used in advanced technologies that support a broad range of industries, including health care, transportation and defense.
REE hand and Devices
NETL Researchers Paul Ohodnicki, Ph.D., and Dustin McIntyre, Ph.D., have worked with optical sensors and laser induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) for years, adapting their respective technologies to fit different applications. When the U.S. Department of Energy recently made securing a domestic supply of rare earth elements (REEs) a priority, both researchers realized that portable sensors were uniquely suited to achieve this goal.
NETL has created a miniaturized version of the LIBS technology seen here that can be used for REE characterization.
In the middle of the 20th century, the United States became a leading global supplier of rare earth elements (REEs). These valuable materials were used extensively in the manufacture of innovative technologies like color televisions and other high-tech devices of the time. However, U.S. dominance in the rare earth market began to slip near the turn of the 21st century, and now China exports almost all the world’s rare earth elements. Modern technologies, like those used in energy and defense systems, still rely heavily on rare earths for their manufacture, so the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is working diligently to secure a domestic supply. To meet this goal, researchers at DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) are researching better ways to characterize a variety of REE sources. Among the many ways in which NETL is approaching this challenge, is a new miniaturized laser technology that shows promise for quantifying the concentrations of rare earths in sources like coal and coal-related byproducts.
3D map visualization displaying the number of overlapping data resources (scaled from lower (yellow) to higher (red)) relevant for predicting REE concentrations in coal and coal-related strata. This is overlain with quantities (thousand tons) of Powder River Basin (PRB) coal visualized by individual deliveries (gray lines; quantity scaled by width) from 16 mines to 134 power plants (blue spheres; quantity scaled by size) for 2017. In 2017, the PRB accounted for 43% of total U.S.
An innovative bench-scale facility established at West Virginia University (WVU) in collaboration with NETL will demonstrate the feasibility of extracting rare earth elements (REEs) from acid coal mine drainage (AMD) to develop a domestic supply of REEs
An innovative bench-scale facility established at West Virginia University (WVU) in collaboration with NETL will demonstrate the feasibility of extracting rare earth elements (REEs) from acid coal mine drainage (AMD) to develop a domestic supply of REEs – an effort that will enhance America’s economic growth and national security. The WVU Rare Earth Extraction Facility was created as part of an ongoing U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) project managed by NETL. Director (Acting) Sean I. Plasynski and other Lab representatives joined DOE Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy Steven Winberg, WVU leaders and noted dignitaries for a commissioning event July 18 to celebrate the launch of the new facility.
Recovery Projects Infographic
Four rare earth elements (REEs) recovery projects managed by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Fossil Energy and the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) have made significant progress in the development of a domestic supply of REEs from coal and coal by-products by successfully producing REE concentrates. REEs are especially valuable today because much of modern technology relies on them. In fact, the manufacture of everything from mobile phones to national defense systems requires a supply of REEs, and DOE research has identified coal and coal by-products as a promising domestic source. An important measure of success for these REE recovery projects is the extracted and separated REE concentration (amount of REEs) in the resulting pre-concentrated, recovered product. The REE recovery percentage (the total amount of the REE present in the feedstock) is critical for the economical processing of these elements.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) has found high rare earth element (REE) concentrations in coal samples taken from the Illinois, Northern Appalachian, Central Appalachian, Rocky Mountain Coal Basins, and the Pennsylvania Anthracite region. These highly concentrated samples are greater than 300 parts per million (ppm). “Rare Earth Elements are vital to the development and manufacturing of high-tech devices such as computers, cell phones, and our national defense systems,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. “The current difficulties and high expenses associated with REE extraction has left the U.S. dependent on foreign REE imports. Supporting innovative research and development to establish efficient, cost-effective REE extraction methods is critical to our country’s energy and national security.” Concentrations of rare earths at 300 ppm are integral to the commercial viability of extracting REEs from coal and coal by-products, making NETL’s finding particularly significant in the effort to develop economical domestic supplies of these elements.