The Energy Department’s Office of Fossil Energy (FE) has a robust clean energy research and development (R&D) program dedicated to making coal both cleaner and more sustainable. You may have heard about some of the cutting-edge technologies we’re working on, particularly carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS), which captures, stores and re-uses carbon dioxide (CO2) from coal-fired power plants and industrial sources.
But what you may not know is that FE, through the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), is also looking at ways to use coal and its byproducts (like coal ash from power plants, for instance) to develop new sources of critical rare earth elements, or REEs.
REEs – chemical elements found in the Earth’s crust – are integral to the way we live our everyday lives, from energy to technology to national security. These elements are used in hybrid vehicles, wind turbines, and fluorescent lights, as well as things you use daily – like your computer hard drive and maybe even the smart phone you’re reading this article on. With all these uses, it’s no surprise that the demand for REEs is very high – and continues to grow.
Although REEs are incorporated into our daily lives, they are extremely difficult to retrieve. It’s most common to find REEs in ores, or minerals, that are hard break down and expensive to extract. That’s why the U.S. depends heavily on imports for needed REEs.
Now, with the help of FE-supported research, the need to import REEs may change thanks to our Nation’s huge coal resources. These large swaths of coal contain REEs in amounts large enough to potentially reduce our dependence on imports.
Recently, a team of FE-led researchers discovered that REEs can be extracted from two U.S. coal byproduct materials through a cost effective process that’s being used in China to remove the elements from other sources. This discovery could potentially expand the U.S. domestic resource base of these critical elements and in turn could potentially create new industries and jobs in regions like Appalachia, where coal plays a significant role in the local and regional economy.
But that’s not the end of the story. Last December, the Department invested more than $8 million in 10 projects to develop bench- and pilot-scale technologies that could make it possible to sustainably, and cost-effectively, recover REEs from the Nation’s coal and coal byproducts. Of these 10 NETL-managed projects, it’s expected that as many as four of them will be ready to move into the next stage, where they can actually apply the technology that will safely and economically recover REEs from coal and its byproducts.
As we move toward a low-carbon economy, it’s important that one of the Nation’s most abundant resources, coal, is used in a sustainable and environmentally sound way. It’s also important to find ways to beneficially use coal and its byproducts – and in the process, create new industries and the good jobs that go with them. By finding ways to extract REEs from coal, FE’s research is helping to do that.
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