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The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) prioritized the creation of a domestic supply of rare earth elements (REEs), and one of NETL’s supported projects that may provide these vital resources using the nation’s abundant coal supplies has demonstrated favorable results. As part of an NETL-funded cooperative agreement, researchers from the University of Utah and Virginia Tech evaluated a new, low-cost technology to extract and recover an enriched, mixed REE oxide (REO) product from coal-based resources. The project team successfully obtained six different coal waste samples with REE concentrations that exceeded the project’s requirement.
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The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Fossil Energy (FE) and NETL have issued a request for proposal (RFP) as an unrestricted, full, and open competition for the conceptual design of a system to produce 1–3 tonnes per day of mixed rare earth oxides or rare earth salts from domestic coal and coal by-product feedstocks. The proposal also includes an option to conduct a feasibility study sufficient to support an AACE Class 4 cost estimate to assess the technical and economic feasibility of the approach identified in the conceptual design. The contract award(s) resulting from this RFP will be firm-fixed-price.
Acid mine drainage (AMD) samples collected from a site in Pennsylvania. The right flask shows the AMD sludge and the left flask shows the AMD runoff water prior to treatment. Photo courtesy of RTI.
As securing a domestic source of rare earth elements (REEs) remains a priority for the U.S. Department of Energy, a potential opportunity to obtain these elements is within reach thanks to our nation’s abundant coal resources. With support from the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), the Research Triangle Institute (RTI) is exploring methods by which REEs can be extracted, separated, and recovered from coal-based resources. As part of an NETL-funded cooperative agreement, Zachary Hendren, Ph.D., and his RTI team, which include Cerahelix and Veolia Water Technologies, are testing the efficacy of various approaches to REE recovery and enrichment (with a targeted concentrated goal of 2wt% mixed REE) from acid mine drainage (AMD) samples using a combination of novel technologies. This means that of one of the nation’s most abundant resources, coal, could provide a potential source of vital REEs without the investment required to open a new mine specifically dedicated to their extraction. Already existing coal mines could provide domestic supplies if the extraction methods are refined and desired purities reached.
Rare Earth
NETL-supported research to secure a domestic supply of rare earth elements (REEs) shows economic potential regarding efficiency and cost savings and progresses along the pathway to commercial viability. The Lab has funded and supported multiple projects across the nation to extract REEs from coal and coal-related byproducts. A notable example is coal acid mine drainage (AMD) and sludge originating from abandoned or still operating mines. However, NETL and its partners are making progress refining a method to clean up AMD in order to extract the vital REEs needed for the U.S. economy to stay competitive on the global market while providing environmental remediation. This sludge is enriched in REEs and contains an average total REE content several times higher than raw, untreated AMD. However, separating the valuable REEs can be very expensive.
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Many of the nation’s leading scientists and engineers will present new energy technologies at the NETL-hosted Spring Fossil Energy R&D Project Review Meeting Tuesday, April 21, through Thursday, April 23, at the Omni William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh. The meeting also is expected to attract representatives from electric utilities, as well as research universities and private industries who are interested in partnering with NETL on current and future projects. The conference will explore how research and development (R&D) activities sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Fossil Energy (FE) are advancing transformative science and innovative technologies that enable the reliable, efficient, affordable and environmentally sound use of fossil fuels. Fossil energy sources constitute more than 80% of the country’s total energy use, and are important to the nation’s security, economic prosperity and growth. Focus areas will include:
As the world continues its transition to a highly tech-driven economy, NETL supports innovative techniques to develop a reliable domestic supply of rare earth elements (REEs), which are vital materials for modern technologies. To that end, NETL is collaborating with the University of Kentucky and their subcontractor Virginia Tech to demonstrate a novel process that could see America’s coal country as a new supplier of these vital materials. REEs, which represent the 15 elements of the lanthanide series plus scandium and yttrium, are used in the manufacture of smart phones, cars, television screens and defense technologies; even windmills and other green energy equipment need these resources to function. The “rare” in rare earth elements stem not from a scarcity of deposits, but rather, in their sparse concentrations. However, one of the country’s historic power sources, coal, could become an abundant and easily accessible domestic REE source.
Ohio State TEP process
Innovations by researchers at Ohio State University have shown potential to deliver a supply of strategically and economically vital rare earth elements (REEs). REEs are used in everything from green energy applications and personal electronics to defense technology and smart car systems. Important as these elements are, China controls the lion’s share of the world market. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has been tasked with helping secure a domestic supply. NETL’s research has demonstrated methods by which REEs can be extracted from the nation’s coal by-products such as acid mine drainage (AMD) and fly ash generated at power generation facilities, with the Ohio State University refining this process even further. The Ohio State University researchers demonstrated that a conceptual three-stage trap-extract-precipitate (TEP) process can successfully extract REEs from coal mine drainage.  The TEP process relies on the use of environmentally benign industrial by-products to trap the REEs and an organic chelating agent to recover the REEs from the mine drainage.
Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy Research Continues to Evolve at NETL
Laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, or LIBS, is a rapidly advancing analytical technique that provides a cost-effective, quick and precise method for determining the elemental composition of any solid, liquid or gas sample. Knowing exactly what elements are present enables researchers to characterize domestic sources of valuable rare earth elements, help natural gas producers develop more efficient shale drilling operations, assure safe and permanent carbon storage and monitor groundwater quality — essential work for providing the nation with affordable, reliable energy while still protecting the environment. In prior research, NETL researchers successfully miniaturized a LIBS system that can be deployed downhole for subsurface measurements. The simple, easy-to-fabricate, miniature LIBS probe is fully adaptable to field use and capable of measurements even in harsh environments. Now, the same research team has developed a complimentary lab-scale LIBS system that can take measurements under conditions representing the native environment of the sample.
To really understand a complex challenge, it pays to take a close look at the details. NETL researchers are taking this approach as they use X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS) to understand and characterize rare earth oxides on the atomic level. The pioneering research was recently selected for publication in the June edition of the journal Surface Science Spectra. To view the study, go here. Rare earth elements (REEs) are crucial in the development of technologies and tools vital to daily life, from cell phone batteries to medical imaging and water treatment applications. REEs are a set of 15 lanthanide elements within the periodic table that are actually not rare in nature, but occur in trace amounts as compounds with other metals. NETL is aggressively pursuing research and development for technologies capable of producing a domestic supply of high-purity, salable rare earth compounds.
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Today, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and NETL have announced up to $87.3 million in federal funding for cost-shared research and development (R&D) projects for advanced coal technologies and research. DOE Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy Steven Winberg announced this R&D funding at the Annual Project Review Meeting for Crosscutting, Rare Earth Elements, Gasification, and Transformative Power Generation at the National Energy Technology Laboratory. “Coal-fueled power plants are a significant source of electrical power generation in the United States. The goal with these projects is to ensure that the United States can have a fleet of coal-fired power plants that provides stable power generation with operational flexibility, high efficiency, low emissions, and lower costs for consumers,” said Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy Steven Winberg. “By investing in this R&D, we will enable the United States to continue maximizing its domestic energy resources while protecting our supply of reliable and affordable electricity.” In 2017, coal was the second-largest energy source for electricity generation in the United States.