Researchers at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, USA, are working with academic and industry partners in a $1 million pilot project to recover rare earth elements from coal and coal by-products. Funded in part by a US Department of Energy National Energy Technology Laboratory grant, Virginia Tech engineers will test hydrophobic-hydrophilic separation (HHS) technology, a patented process that takes advantage of properties of water-friendly and water-repellent materials to extract rare earth elements from coal waste.
The project is led by principal investigator Rick Honaker, a Professor and Chair of the University of Kentucky’s Department of Engineering, who received his undergraduate and graduate engineering degrees at Virginia Tech. Researchers from West Virginia University and representatives from five corporate partners are also part of the team.
“The majority of rare earths is produced in China as by-products,” stated Roe-Hoan Yoon, Director of the Center for Advanced Separation Technologies at Virginia Tech. “With the recent closure of the rare earth mine in California, the US relies more heavily on imports. It will be good for the country if we can develop an advanced separation technology to extract the critical materials from coal as by-products, particularly the high-value rare earths essential for advanced manufacturing industries.”
If the currently funded Phase I project is successful, researchers will seek $6 million in Phase II funding that will involve construction and testing of a mobile facility to be tested at different coal cleaning facilities in the central Appalachian coal field.
“Domestic supply of rare earth materials is critical for the US manufacturing industry,” added Morgan Griffith, who represents Virginia’s 9th district in the US House of Representatives. “As the nation moves toward electric-drive vehicles, wind farming, and other sustainable energy measures, it is important to develop a reliable source of essential materials. In addition, we will develop new, cleaner applications for coal and coal by-products to revitalise the mining industry.”
The US has 10.9 million tons of rare earth resources in coal deposits located in just five western and four eastern states, including Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia, according to the US Geological Survey Coal Quality Database.