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article imageCoal industry may mine rare earth elements for Silicon Valley

By Karen Graham     Aug 18, 2017 in Business
Washington - The Department of Energy handed out $17.4 million on Wednesday for research into the recovery of rare earth elements (REE) from coal and coal byproducts, possibly leading to a revival of the dying coal industry.
In a case of killing two birds with one stone, the Energy department addresses two major issues, one being the revival of the coal industry in the U.S. and the increased need for rare earth elements used in everything from smartphones to wind turbines, guided missiles, and other applications.
The DOE announcement on Wednesday said four academic institutions, in West Virginia, Kentucky, North Dakota, and Massachusetts will receive the funding to pursue two projects to advance the recovery of rare earth minerals from abandoned coal mines and coal waste.
The funding comes from a program developed by the Obama administration that supported technologies proven by the Energy Department under a 2015 funding allotment, reports the Washington Examiner.
Big businesses say they want to help the transition to clean energy. Pictured here is an unused coal...
Big businesses say they want to help the transition to clean energy. Pictured here is an unused coal mine in Black Mountain, Virginia.
NICHOLAS KAMM, AFP/File
It should be pointed out that using the term "rare earth elements" is something of a misnomer. While REEs in their pure form are considered to be rare, they are plentiful in compounds. In the U.S., there is only one REE mine, and it is in California. But it was closed down in 2016 after the mining company Molycorp filed for bankruptcy.
Reasons behind the DOE's funding
But why use coal? Granted, coal is a dirty fossil fuel. not only does it produce high amounts of carbon dioxide while being burned, but it also contains non-hydrocarbon chemicals that can be toxic when they are released into the air. These also include an important group of metals called "rare earth elements" or REEs.
As a matter of fact, these REEs found in the Earth's crust are actually of strategic importance because they are key components of electronics, defense, and communications systems. In the past decade or so, China has been the primary supplier of 90 percent of REEs globally and has effectively controlled the price of the metals.
The artificial lake in Baotou in Inner Mongolia - the dumping ground for radioactive  toxic waste fr...
The artificial lake in Baotou in Inner Mongolia - the dumping ground for radioactive, toxic waste from the city’s rare earth mineral refineries.
Tim Maughan
This is one of the big reasons the DOE is interested in developing a home-grown REE industry. "The demand for [these elements] has grown significantly over recent years, stimulating an emphasis on developing economically feasible approaches for domestic REE recovery," the Energy Department said.
Basically, the funding will cover two projects to advance the recovery of rare earth elements from abandoned coal mines and coal waste. West Virginia University and the North Dakota Institute for Energy Studies are focused on developing "bench-scale technology" leading to the separation, extraction, and concentration of the mixed REEs from coal and coal byproducts.
The University of Kentucky Research Foundation and the private Massachusetts company Physical Sciences Inc are focusing their research on developing "pilot-scale technology to economically separate, extract and concentrate mixed rare earth elements from coal and coal byproduct solids."
Known deposits of Rare Earth Elements around the world.
Known deposits of Rare Earth Elements around the world.
U.S. Govt.
REE recovery and its impact on business and economy
Looking at the bigger picture, when R&D gives us an economical way to separate and extract REEs from coal and its byproducts, the U.S. will become less dependent on foreign suppliers for REEs. And this will be especially good news for coal miners in Appalachia.
A study done in 2016 by Duke University looked at the content of rare earth elements in coal ashes from the United States. They found that coal originating from the Appalachian Mountains has the highest concentrations of scarce elements like neodymium, europium, terbium, dysprosium, yttrium, and erbium that are needed for alternative energy and other technologies.
A less costly and workable recovery method will also fuel investment by businesses wanting to broaden their sustainability base, while at the same time attracting tech-oriented start-ups exploring other uses for materials extracted from coal ash and other coal byproducts.
More about rare earth metals, Coal mines, coal byproducts, department of energy, Technology
 
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