NETL Rare Earth Recovery Projects Delivering Promising Results
Funding to develop processes for cost-effective REE recovery from coal
In December 2015 the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (“NETL”) selected 10 projects to receive funding for research in support of “development of cost-effective and environmentally benign approaches for the recovery of rare earth elements from domestic coal and coal byproducts”.
The 10 projects selected by NETL received “Phase 1” funding to sample and characterize coal-related host materials, carry out a techno-economic feasibility study, and develop a system design for the proposed REE recovery technology.
Four projects selected to advance further
In August 2017 the U.S. Department of Energy (“DOE”) selected four of the 10 projects to advance to “Phase 2” of the initiative, in which the DOE will invest US $17.4 million to develop and test the selected REE recovery systems.
Among the four projects selected to advance are two bench-scale projects (one developed by the University of North Dakota Institute for Energy Studies and the other by West Virginia University Research Corporation) and two pilot-scale projects (one operated by Physical Sciences Inc. and the other by the University of Kentucky Research Foundation).
Recovery rates and concentration levels exceeding expectations
On February 1, 2018 NETL announced that the four projects, which are expected to be completed by 2020, “have made significant progress in the development of a domestic supply of REEs from coal and coal by-products by successfully producing REE concentrates”.
According to NETL, “an important measure of success for these REE recovery projects is the extracted and separated REE concentration (amount of REEs) in the resulting pre-concentrated, recovered product”.
As such, NETL contends that the main goal of the four projects “is to achieve at least 2 percent – or 20,000 parts per million (ppm) – REE elemental concentration, which represents a significant enrichment from feedstocks that typically contain REEs at 300 ppm (0.03 percent)”. According to NETL’s latest announcement, each of the four projects has met or greatly exceeded this goal.
Among the results NETL cites:
- Physical Sciences (pilot-scale project) produced a REE concentrate containing 40 wt.% REE at a 15% recovery rate using post-combustion fly ash from burning Central Appalachian Basin coal.
- The University of Kentucky (pilot-scale project) produced a REE concentrate containing over 80 wt. % REE at a recovery rate exceeding 75% using Central Appalachian Basin and Illinois Basin coal preparation plant refuse.
- The University of North Dakota (bench-scale project) produced a REE concentrate containing 2 wt. % REE at a 35% recovery rate using North Dakota lignite coal.
- West Virginia University (bench-scale project) produced a REE concentrate containing 5 wt. % REE at a recovery rate exceeding 90% using acid mine drainage solids from the Northern Appalachian and Central Appalachian Basins.
The success of these four projects has led to patent applications for new rare earth recovery methods. According to NETL, “knowledge gained from these four REE recovery projects benefits additional NETL projects currently underway to design technology for producing salable, individual REE compounds from coal-related materials at a minimum rate of 10 pounds per day”.
While the results yielded by the four projects show promise in their ability to liberate domestic supplies of rare earth elements in the U.S., the challenge of U.S. (and European) supply security is multi-faceted. To fully address the issue requires not just access to domestic rare earth supplies but also, more importantly, an ability upgrade those supplies into metals, alloys, magnets, and other value-added materials that are critically important to U.S. (and European) industry and defense.
More information about NETL’s projects and initiatives is available on the NETL website.
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