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A photogarph of Christina Lopano, a Caucasian woman with blonde hair, blue eyes, and a teal long sleeve shirt on.
NETL’s Christina Lopano to Receive Award from the Association for Women Geoscientists

An NETL researcher who has led the development of a groundbreaking process to extract rare earth elements and critical minerals (REEs-CMs) from coal and coal byproducts will receive the Professional Excellence Award from the Association for Women Geoscientists.

The association will present the award to Christina Lopano for outstanding contributions in the government/regulatory category at its awards breakfast on Monday, Oct. 10, 2022, in Denver.

Lopano has been a driving force behind the development of NETL’s Targeted Rare Earth Extraction (TREE) process to extract REEs-CMs from a broad range of coal and coal-processing materials and waste streams, including acid mine drainage and various ashes.

“I am honored to receive this recognition because it validates the important work we are doing at NETL to ensure a robust domestic supply of REEs and CMs, which are needed to manufacture valuable consumer products such as computers and electronics as well as medical equipment, windmill turbines, other clean energy components and defense systems,” said Lopano, a member of the Lab’s Geochemistry Team.

Currently, the United States imports greater than 80% of its REEs-CMs from offshore suppliers. “Our team has developed TREE to build a reliable domestic supply chain of REEs-CMs for U.S. manufacturers and remove hazardous wastes from the environment,” Lopano said.

While almost all conventional REE-CM extraction processes use harsh chemicals and frequently operate at high temperatures, the TREE process provides a superior, environmentally benign alternative through the development of a low-cost, low-impact extraction pathway while operating at or near ambient temperatures and pressures.

TREE technology has been deployed in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and could be deployed in other regions with coal resources and a legacy of coal production to stimulate economic growth and ensure no communities are left behind as the U.S. transitions to a clean energy future.

The TREE process can extract REEs-CMs from coal byproducts with calcium content greater than 15% by weight, which commonly occurs from the combustion of sub-bituminous coal and lignite. Nearly half of the world’s proven coal reserves are made up of sub-bituminous coal and lignite.

“Therefore, the TREE methodology can generate a valuable product stream for REEs-CMs from the low-cost waste materials that are prevalent in coal and fossil energy industries worldwide,” Lopano said.

Since joining NETL in 2009, Lopano has been cited for excellence on several occasions. In December 2021, she received the Secretary of Energy’s Excellence Award, among the highest department honors a federal employee can receive, for her leadership in innovative research and development efforts to recover REEs-CMs from coal waste streams.

Also in 2021, Lopano was recognized as a 125th Anniversary Fellow by the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Pennsylvania State University where she earned her doctorate from the Department of Geosciences. More recently, Lopano and her colleagues on the TREE research team were named finalists for a prestigious R&D 100 award.  

Lopano strongly supports the development of the next generation of talented researchers and has engaged in public outreach activities to encourage women to explore careers in science and technology. These activities include mentoring early-career scientists at NETL as well as interns participating in the Mickey Leland Energy Fellowship and the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education programs.

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.