NETL develops framework for recovering rare earth elements from unconventional sources

August 17, 2023

August 17, 2023

The National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), a US national laboratory under the country’s Department of Energy Office of Fossil Energy, has developed a framework to assess the economic viability of recovering rare earth elements (REEs) from unconventional feedstocks such as coal and coal waste. The framework is part of NETL’s efforts to explore new domestic sources of critical minerals (CM) that can reduce the nation’s reliance on foreign sources for these minerals.

REEs are crucial for the development of high-priority technologies that facilitate the transition to a clean energy future. Unconventional REE sources, such as coal and coal waste, could yield the materials needed for the strong magnets necessary to turn wind into electricity and operate electric vehicles.

In a new article published in Nature Sustainability, NETL researchers Alison Fritz, PhD; Thomas Tarka; and Megan Mauter, PhD from Stanford University, describe their efforts to create a new framework for assessing the economic viability of unconventional REE feedstocks.

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“There’s no doubt that sourcing REEs from unconventional feedstocks like secondary waste materials could have substantial environmental and societal–economic benefits if executed correctly,” Fritz, who served as the article’s primary author, explained. “But its economic viability remains unclear. Without some clear metrics to evaluate recovery efforts, it is hard for industry leaders to understand whether the economics of important projects make sense.”

“We started by developing an effective database of capital and operating expenses for REE recovery,” Fritz added. “That allowed us to establish consistent process unit costs for common stages in the conventional supply chain. We then used market prices to develop well-defined methods for determining diverse product values.”

The work reportedly plays a critical role in NETL’s efforts to make the recovery of REEs from unconventional sources a common reality.

According to a Department of Energy (DOE) report to Congress about REEs in 2022, “DOE has made many advancements toward the recovery of REE and CM from coal and coal byproducts — identifying significant REE resources in coal and coal byproducts and in what quantities and combinations, demonstrating that they can be extracted from coal, coal measures, coal ash, coal refuse, and acid mine drainage, and establishing first-of-a-kind pilots that produce high-purity REE from these feedstocks.”

“In the absence of strong data on process costs, previous techno-economic assessments of unconventional feedstocks make highly inconsistent assumptions about refining costs and the appropriate discount applied for low-purity REE products. This inconsistency stymies comparisons between techno-economic assessments. We believe our framework can help correct those deficiencies,” Fritz concluded.

The economic analysis work is intended to complement a range of significant progress made possible by NETL research. The lab has built strong partnerships with industries that are making considerable advances in the field.

Access the full article here.

August 17, 2023

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