Funding to extract rare earths from coal

Article by Helen Tunnicliffe

A higher concentration of rare earth elements are found in poor quality coal, shale and byproducts

THE US Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded US$1m in funding to Penn State University and its industry partners to help commercialise a process to extract rare earth elements from coal.

Researchers at Penn State published research in 2016 detailing a cost-effective and environmentally friendly extraction method for rare earth elements in coal, which they stated at the time could help reduce US dependence on rare earth imports. Rare earth elements are vital in the production of various types of high tech electronic equipment, including computers, smartphones and rechargeable batteries, but currently, 85% come from China. In addition, a higher concentration of rare earth elements are found in the poor quality coal, shale and byproducts which are often discarded as waste, offering a potential new stream of income for miners.

Penn State joined forces with a consortium of three industry partners – Texas Mineral Resources Corporation (TMRC), Inventure Renewables, and K-Technologies – to commercialise the process. The group will now use the funding to conduct laboratory testing and developed a design for a pilot plant to produce sellable rare earth elements, from coal and waste produced at a Pennsylvania anthracite mine. The partners also hope to determine the economic feasibility of the process.

The pilot plant will be self-contained, modular and portable and use continuous-ion-exchange/continuous-ion-chromatography. The initial process developed by the Penn State team used ammonium sulphate as the solvent to remove the rare earth elements attached to the surface of the coal. Using a basic ion exchange method the team could extract 0.5% of the available rare earth elements, and with more advanced ion exchange methods, they believed this could rise to 2%, which would be enough to make the process profitable.

“If we reach a ceiling with the method of ion exchange, we will begin to test alternative methods that may be economical and environmentally feasible. We believe this novel approach for extraction will be able to provide the high efficiency and throughput sought by the industry for a technologically feasible and an economically viable extraction method for rare earth elements,” said Sarma Pisupati, professor of energy and mineral engineering at Penn State.

Article by Helen Tunnicliffe

Senior reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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