Back to Top
Skip to main content
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.
FOA Logo
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. 
Regional Workforce Initiative
The National Energy Technology Laboratory’s (NETL) Regional Workforce Initiative will present a free Energy 101 Webinar at 1 p.m. Thursday, March 28. The on-line event is designed to inform participants about evolving technology solutions related to rare earth elements (REEs) and advanced composites/materials and manufacturing and their potential economic development impact on the Appalachian Region. The webinar is free, but registration is required. Interested persons can register for the webinar here.
FOA Announcement Logo
The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Fossil Energy (FE) has issued a Notice of Intent (NOI) for a Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) focused on recovering rare earth elements (REE) and critical materials (CM) from domestic coal  resources, using novel and conventional extraction, separation, and recovery processes. DE-FOA-0002003, Process Scale-Up and Optimization/Efficiency Improvements for Rare Earth Elements (REE) and Critical Materials (CM) Recovery from Coal-Based Resources, will support FE’s Rare Earth Elements program. The National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) will manage these projects.  It is anticipated that the FOA will target two areas of interest (AOIs). 1. Production of REEs and CMs – Transitioning and Scale-Up of Novel Extraction/Separation Concept Development into Bench-Scale Facility REE/CM Production. Specifically, this AOI will focus on further development or scale-up of novel REE and CM extraction and separation concepts, leading to production of REEs and CMs in bench-scale facilities.
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.