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NETL Hopes to Create Centers for Unconventional Critical Materials Supply Chain Research

NETL is leading a charge to develop the nation’s critical mineral (CM) supply chains with an approach that simultaneously helps disadvantaged communities become critical contributors in the nation’s low-carbon energy future.

Thirty years ago, the conventional view was that oil and gas could never be economically extracted from shale, but NETL innovations proved otherwise. Just as NETL led the development of unconventional energy sources in the U.S. that are keeping the gas flowing to Europe during Russia’s war on Ukraine, the Lab is focused on developing the technology to unlock unconventional sources of critical minerals. These include many different resources that are available but overlooked by conventional operators. Waste rock, coal ash and acid mine waters aren’t very appealing to the conventional mining industry, but to NETL researchers, they’re potential gold mines. 

NETL has coordinated regional teams of researchers across the country through the Carbon Ore, Rare Earth, and Critical Minerals (CORE-CM) Initiative for U.S. Basins, taking a big step toward comprehensive resource assessment technologies and providing a beachhead for the local development of supply chains near unconventional mineral resources.

“We hope to unite complementary approaches and research capabilities with the long-term goal to create dedicated supply chain research centers that will continue to prove-out domestic production techniques for CMs. These domestic sources will provide jobs that can’t be off-shored in American communities that need investment.  Many of these jobs will be in the nation’s historic mining and power communities and will incentivize new cleanup initiatives at legacy mining sites,” explained Burt Thomas, technical portfolio lead for critical minerals at NETL.

The CORE-CM Initiative and NETL’s in-house research portfolio in critical minerals are funded by U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management (FECM). These are multi-year efforts to catalyze regional economic growth and accelerate the development of upstream and midstream critical mineral supply chain technologies. These efforts are finding and valorizing the unconventional mineral resources of the country and impacting the downstream manufacturing of high-value, nonfuel, carbon-based products.

In addition to finding economic value in US resources, these projects will promote the environmental and justice initiatives that are a foundation for long-term social license to operate.  CORE-CM Initiatives and the NETL team are committed to ensuring best practices for environmental health and safety associated with any proposed work.

CMs and REEs are needed for a variety of technologies necessary for the country to decarbonize its power sector and economy. Electric vehicles, new electricity networks, energy storage, battery storage, solar panels and wind turbines all require these resources. Decarbonizing the American economy by 2050 requires at least quadrupling mineral demand for clean energy technologies by 2040 — with much higher demand growth expected for some minerals, such as lithium, graphite, cobalt, nickel, and REEs.

However, existing domestic supplies and production for many of the minerals and metals necessary for these technologies are currently scarce to non-existent and the United States remains dependent on imported supplies.

Since 2014, FECM and NETL have been developing technologies to diversify the domestic supply and enable the reuse of coal waste and byproducts, particularly in the production of high-value carbon products.

“This challenge is something the U.S. is up for.  Research facilities like the proposed research centers at NETL will help scientists, engineers, and commercial partners in these communities understand the pathways to commercialize their resources.  If we succeed, the same communities that kept the lights on for all of us by mining coal may yet be responsible for keeping the lights on by supplying the nation’s magnets, batteries, and electronic components.  We need all-hands-on-deck to protect our future.”  Thomas said.

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.