DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy (FE) is charged with ensuring the availability of ultraclean (near-zero emissions), abundant, low-cost domestic energy from coal to fuel economic prosperity, strengthen energy independence, and enhance environmental quality. As a component of that effort, the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) is engaged in research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) activities to create technology and technology-based policy options for public benefit. The REE from Coal and Coal By-Products program is designed to remove environmental concerns related to coal use by developing a portfolio of innovative technologies, including those for carbon capture and storage (CCS) and the economic recovery of REEs from coal and coal by-product streams.
In 2009, interest in strategic materials intensified culminating in discussions regarding our nation’s ability to secure reliable supplies of rare earth metals (and other strategic materials). Strategic materials were identified as critical for growing the U.S. green energy and electronics industries as well as for specialty military applications. In 2010, the DOE released the first Critical Materials Strategy and NETL initiated a small investigative effort to explore the concept of extracting rare earth elements from coal and coal by-products. Congress has since recognized the importance of this resource to U.S. economic security and appropriated funding in FY2014 to identify the magnitude of the resource, develop capabilities to economically recover rare earth metals in an environmentally responsible manner, and provide an additional domestic, secure, and reliable resource for future advanced technology industries in United States.
In 2014, NETL expanded its efforts to assess the potential resource base for rare earth metals contained within underground coal resources and coal by-product waste streams from coal cleaning operations and power plants (post combustion material). Initial research identified potential “hot spots” in select coal seams for rare earth elements and confirmed that the quantity of these elements varied depending on geology, location, and other factors that were not yet fully understood. Efforts to explore the available technology for extracting these vital elements were undertaken leading to the conclusion that additional research and technology development would be needed to convert this resource into a viable domestic commodity.
The Rare Earth Elements (REE) from Coal and Coal By‐Products RD&D Program consists of five core technology areas that are focused on development of REE separation and recovery technologies, addressing the current global REE separations market and process economics, and demonstrating the generation of environmentally benign REE separation processing capabilities. Our nation’s vast coal resources contain quantities of REEs that offer the potential to reduce our dependence on others for these critical materials and create new industries in regions where coal plays an important economic role. The development of an economically competitive supply of REEs will secure and maintain our nation’s economic growth and national security.
The overall objective of this program is to validate the technical and economical feasibility of prototype salable high purity REE systems by 2020. Technologies for recovering REEs are focused on separating REEs from coal and/or coal by‐products containing a minimum of 300 ppm total REEs, and concentrating the REEs to a level greater than or equal to 2 wt% in resulting processed streams. This will be accomplished through conduct of laboratory REE separation projects and demonstration of concept feasibility at bench‐ scale through pilot‐scale facilities, ultimately readying REE separations technology for commercial deployment. Co‐production of materials and/or critical elements, successful demonstration of environmentally benign processing, and competitive economics are key critical areas for success of this program.
Three overarching goals have been defined for the REE Program.
The REE Program is comprised of 5 Key Focus Areas: (1) Resource Sampling and Characterization; (2) Separation Technology Development; (3) REE Sensor Development; (4) Process & Systems Modeling; and (5) Techno-economic Analysis
Environmental concerns related to processing REEs from coal and coal by-products will be an underlying element of the five focus areas above.