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Highlighting Rare Earth Elements
Highlighting Rare Earth Elements

Throughout human history, coal has been an invaluable resource for heat and light and all the commodities that have played such an important role in advancing our global civilizations. From ancient China to ancient Greece, coal was recognized as a useful and important material. Today, coal continues to fuel our prosperity in new and surprising ways.

We expect coal to fuel our power stations to provide the electricity we rely on – but did you know coal can also provide materials critical to the functioning of our everyday personal technology devices, renewable and nuclear energy components, medical technologies, transportation and more?  

The critical materials are rare earth elements, or REEs, and NETL research is finding that coal and coal byproducts may provide a source of REEs that may possibly create new industries and jobs in regions where coal has played an important economic role.

REEs are a group of 17 elements on the periodic table. Despite the name, REEs are not rare in nature. They’re found throughout the Earth’s crust, but typically in low concentrations. That’s why finding a way to produce REEs in industrial relevant quantities is a priority for NETL. If you use a smartphone or computer hard drive, you rely on REEs. If you watch TV, REEs are behind the visual display. If you think you might need an X-ray or MRI, then you’ll need REEs to make these applications work. REEs are also used in making wind turbines, control rods for nuclear reactors, aircraft engines and catalytic converters for cars.

These are just a few of the applications made possible through REEs, but it should be clear these elements have a large impact on our quality of life. NETL is developing technologies for the clean, efficient and economic recovery of REEs from coal and coal by-products that can be developed and implemented within the United States. Our progress so far is exciting. Here are a few examples:

  • New sensor for determining the concentration of REEs in acid mine drainage.
  • A groundbreaking bench-scale facility for the extraction, separation and recovery of REEs from acid mine drainage sludge.
  • Novel sorbents for recovering REEs from acid mine drainage.

This month NETL is featuring its research on recovering REEs from coal and coal byproducts. It’s a noteworthy example of the success NETL is forging in its mission to discover, integrate and mature technology solutions to enhance the nation’s energy foundation and protect the environment for future generations. I invite you to read more about our REE research innovations in our Newsroom. I hope you find the discoveries as illuminating to read about as we did in unearthing them.


As Acting Director of NETL, Sean I. Plasynski, Ph.D., builds on an extensive background in energy as he leads NETL in its mission to enhance the nation’s energy independence and protect the environment for future generations. For more information about Sean Plasynski's experience, please click here.