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NETL-Supported REE from Coal Ash Technology Development Attracts New Support from DOD
NETL-Supported REE from Coal Ash Technology Development Attracts New Support from DOD

U.S.  Department of Defense (DOD) progress on a $4 million plan to pursue a technology for recovering rare earth elements (REEs) and other critical minerals from coal ash, has its roots in a ground-breaking project spearheaded by NETL and private partner – Physical Sciences Inc. (PSI).

The DOD’s action is an example of how NETL leverages cooperative partnerships for technology development in the public and private sectors.

PSI, with support from NETL, demonstrated a concept of how REE concentrates can be produced using coal ash resources from Appalachia. The goal of the project was to provide a potential domestic source of REEs along with a viable environmental remediation process for coal fly ash. 

REEs are crucial for a variety of economic, energy and defense applications. The current supply chain is dominated by other countries. A domestic source would insulate the U.S. from disruptions in global trade of REEs. 

With NETL support, PSI and the University of Kentucky’s Center for Applied Energy Research (UK CAER) investigated the REE content including yttrium and scandium (REYSc) of coal-fired power plant ashes. PSI developed the design of a pilot-scale facility to economically produce salable REYSc-rich concentrates and commercially viable co-products from coal ash feedstock using environmentally safe and high-yield physical and chemical enrichment and recovery processes.

During Phase 2 of the NETL-supported project, PSI, Winner Water Services (WWS), and UK CAER constructed a micro-pilot facility located at PSI’s Andover, Massachusetts, location, and a pilot facility for chemical processing at WWS’s Sharon, Pennsylvania, location. 

“The project was a crucial steppingstone toward commercial-scale facilities that can produce tons of REYSc per day,” Mark Render, project manager for NETL explained. “This is a great example of what can happen when private industry, academia and a DOE national lab work together.”

Since that NETL/PSI success, the technology took the next step in its evolution with DOD support. In cooperation with DOD’s Office of Industrial Policy (IndPol), PSI kicked off the “Critical Minerals from Coal Ash” prototype pilot project – a $4 million, 30-month project to develop and demonstrate a pilot-scale facility using PSI’s patented extraction technology. The project is proceeding under IndPoi’s Industrial Base Analysis and Sustainment (IBAS) program.

The Director of the IBAS Program, Adele Ratcliff, said, “The Department of Defense fully supports interagency research and development. This effort originally started under funding from the Department of Energy and we are thrilled to help advance this novel technology.”

Many REEs and oxides are critical to defense and commercial applications, including electric vehicle drive motors; hard disk-drive motors used in data storage centers; satellites and lasers; magnets used in precision-guided munitions, optics and audio systems; petroleum refining; and glass additives. 

NETL is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory that drives innovation and delivers technological solutions for an environmentally sustainable and prosperous energy future. By leveraging its world-class talent and research facilities, NETL is ensuring affordable, abundant and reliable energy that drives a robust economy and national security, while developing technologies to manage carbon across the full life cycle, enabling environmental sustainability for all Americans.