The National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), a US-based national laboratory under the country’s Department of Energy Office of Fossil Energy, selected six projects to receive a total of nearly $1 million to create a sustainable supply chain of critical minerals (CM), including rare earth elements (REEs). These projects are since said to have made great strides towards their objectives, including drafting a report to provide insights into consumption and price data, characterising mid-stream REE concentrates and conducting a value analysis to determine the recoverable value of REEs from acid mine drainage (AMD).
“With just over a year of work, our partners are already hitting important milestones,” stated Michael Fasouletos, NETL, who manages several critical mineral projects. “If successful, these projects have the potential to make a real difference in distressed, coal-producing communities by revitalising their economies with new industry while strengthening the nation’s supply chains of these valuable materials.”
One example is Microbeam Technologies. This company has completed a characterisation of midstream REE concentrates to determine CM abundance. The team also worked with coal mines to identify feedstocks that are rich in CMs, including germanium and gallium.
“A key member of the Microbeam team is Lattice Materials, LLC,” Fasouletos added. “They are the nation’s largest germanium crystal grower and a supplier of infrared optics, thin film coating targets and semiconductor fabrication to US Department of Defense contractors. They also supply products to the automotive, aerospace and semiconductor industries. Therefore, characterisation of these particular CMs is especially valuable to this team.”
The University of Utah (U of U) team has also hit a major project goal by completing its Market Demand and Applications Report, which summarises consumption and price data, including criticality indicators such as import reliance and the importance to clean energy technology.
“The U of U team is also well underway toward developing concepts for rare earth metal and CM production from coal and related resources,” Fasouletos continued. “Success in this project will ultimately result in the implementation of new technologies that enable domestic production of needed high-purity REE/CM products from coal resources, which could also significantly boost the economies of disadvantaged coal communities.”
West Virginia University Research Corporation has teamed up with several industry partners, including Rivian Automotive Inc, an American electric vehicle automaker and automotive technology company, and has analysed AMD preconcentrate from an REE/CM recovery pilot plant.
“This group looked at how valuable the CMs would be coming from this AMD source,” Fasouletos added. “And the results showed that the overall contained value is nearly $2,000 per metric ton, which would make this environmentally benign process also economically attractive.”
In addition to the economic benefits both nationally and locally, each of these projects could help insulate manufacturers from disruptions in supply by consolidating the extraction and production of individual critical materials.