WVU Leads Efforts to Study Recovery of Rare Earth Elements From Coal Mining Waste

Written by Derek Springston on . Posted in Blog, Media, News

West Virginia could become one of the country’s significant sources for rare earth elements, the “vitamins of modern industry,” without the expense or environmental cost of opening new mines.

Last week, the United States Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, or NETL, selected West Virginia University to conduct a $937,000 research project in support of DOE’s program to Recover of Rare Earth Elements from Coal and Coal Byproducts.

Rare earth elements, or REEs, are chemical elements in Earth’s crust that are essential ingredients in modern technologies such as cell phones, rechargeable batteries, DVDs, GPS equipment, medical equipment and many defense applications.

Demand for REEs continues to grow, but mining and processing these elements is expensive and difficult. Conventional rare earth extraction grinds large volumes of hard rock and removes rare earths through acid extraction. The process is energy intensive, disturbs large areas of pristine land, and generates large volumes of toxic tailings.

Because of this and the cost of developing domestic sources, the U.S. imports nearly all of its REEs.

There are other methods for obtaining REEs. Some coal-related waste streams are enriched with REEs, sparking interest in evaluation of these wastes as a potential domestic supply.

WVU’s project, “Recovery of Rare Earth Elements from Coal Mine Drainage,” brings together academia, state regulators and industry to collaborate on finding a successful recovery technology for total REEs from acid mine drainage, or AMD.

Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute and principal investigator for the project, and co-investigators Xingbo Liu, professor of mechanical engineering, and Aaron Noble, professor of mining engineering, will test different sources of AMD solids and methods for extracting valuable REEs.

The team has already identified solids precipitated during treatment of AMD, as an enriched source of REEs, particularly the more valuable, heavy elements.

AMD is a waste stream generated by Appalachian coal mining that is created when sulfide minerals in rocks are exposed to air and water. Active coal mines are required to treat this water resulting in the precipitation of AMD solids which must be disposed of.

In Pennsylvania and West Virginia alone, it is estimated that AMD generates more than 45,000 tons of total REEs per year or about three times the current U.S. demand for total REEs.

The team will work with industry partners Mepco Inc., Consol Energy and Rosebud Mining as well as the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Special Reclamation to not only identify enriched AMD solids but to develop ways to integrate rare earth extraction with their current mine drainage treatment operations.

WVU’s approach capitalizes on the fact that acid mine drainage is an existing source of acid which extracts rare earths from coal-related rock. As the coal industry treats this acid water to meet regulatory requirements it generates huge volumes of solids which require disposal.

“Those solids are our feedstock,” Ziemkiewicz said. “And in a sense, it’s already pre-processed.”

Liu and Noble will develop ways to further concentrate REEs so that it can supply the metal refining industry.

No new mines will be needed to generate this domestic supply of rare earths, and rejects will be returned to the AMD treatment plant’s disposal system requiring a negligible environmental footprint.

“Successful development of this concept will generate an additional revenue stream for the coal industry, create jobs and incentivize acid mining treatment,” Ziemkiewicz said. “At the same time it will reduce U.S. reliance on foreign supplies of rare earth elements.”

The research team acknowledges NETLfor its support of this project and looks forward to working with NETL’s scientists in advancing this technology.

-WVU-

pz-ms/12/14/15

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– See more at: http://wvutoday.wvu.edu/n/2015/12/14/wvu-leads-efforts-to-study-recovery-of-rare-earth-elements-from-coal-mining-waste#sthash.PFTtJTwJ.dpuf

Ziemkiewicz Comments on Recent Shale Gas Study

Written by Susan Phillips, Reporter, State Impact on . Posted in Media, News

Contaminants related to shale gas production found in well water in Northeast Pennsylvania likely results from surface spills and leaks, rather than fluid migrating up from fracked wells, according to a new study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study also found a correlation between detectable hydrocarbons and proximity to shale gas wells that had been cited by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for health and safety violations.

None of the detected levels of hydrocarbons in 64 samples taken from Bradford, Susquehanna and Wayne counties between May 2012 and June 2014, included significant levels of hydrocarbons. All the samples were below 200 parts per billion, which is considered a trace amount.

“Our data is telling us that [the hydrocarbons] are coming from the top down,” said Brian Drollette, lead author on the study and a graduate student at Yale University’s chemical and environmental engineering department. “It’s probably resulting from surface spills near the hydraulically fractured sites.”

The researchers looked for two different types of organic compounds, including those in the gasoline range, as well as those in the same chemical family that includes diesel. They also looked for 54 volatile organic compounds, such as benzene, toluene and ethylbenzene.

The team, led by researchers at Yale University, wanted to find out if there were any detectable levels of hydrocarbons associated with hydraulic fracturing in residential water wells, or if there were some other natural sources of contamination. Methane migration has been linked to poor well casing, but natural sources of methane can also be present in aquifers.

Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute and who was not involved in this research, says it’s a “good, sound study” that adds to the growing body of literature about the impact of shale gas drilling on water quality.

“I don’t think too many people have looked at the actual migration pathways of organic compounds,” said Ziemkiewicz.

He’s conducted his own research, and says the link to surface spills, rather than upward migration of frack water, confirms his own study conclusions.

“That’s what I’ve been saying for the past five years,” said Ziemkiewicz. “My point has been all along that it’s mainly surface spills and illegal transport and dumping that are responsible for most of the contamination. And migration from the actual Marcellus level up to the surface is extremely unlikely.”

Read the full article on the State Impact website.

Water Resources Conference Comes to Lewis County

Written by Alex Hines, Lewis, Gilmer, Barbour and Randolph County Reporter on . Posted in Media, News

ROANOKE – The Water Resources Conference of the Virginias began on Monday, Oct. 5 at Stonewall Resort.  The annual meeting brought together the West Virginia Water Research Institute at WVU and the Virginia Water Resources Research Center at Virginia Tech. The two organizations meet each year to share research with people in academics, industry and politics in an effort to keep water resources safe and usable.

“There needs to be some type of dialogue to translate the research to something that policymakers and industry can understand, and I think that’s one part of it,” said WVWRI’s Andrew Stacy.

The two organizations are funded by the U.S. Geological Survey, and the conference is one of their major requirements each year, spreading the research to those interested. Organizers in both states said the joint conference makes it much easier to pass information along to those interested.

“We also share a lot of similar water challenges, with regard to energy extraction, coal mining, natural gas drilling, and so many of the issues in both Virginia and West Virginia are identical,” said VWRRC Director Stephen Schoenholtz.

Read the full article on the WBOY website.

Ziemkiewicz comments West Virginia needs hard data on shale gas drilling waste to determine safe disposal

Written by Glynis Board, West Virginia Public Broadcasting on . Posted in Media, News

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — There are lessons to be learned from Montana on how to handle drill cuttings and solid waste from fracking, reports Glynis Board of West Virginia Public Radio.

“There are lots of federal regulations governing what businesses can legally dump into water, the ground, or release into the air. But the gas industry is getting around a lot of those regulations. The oil and gas industry enjoys exemptions from seven federal laws, including one that is supposed to protect human health from the hazards of waste disposal. Other states have passed their own laws regulating this waste to compensate. But it’s a looser system in West Virginia,” writes Board.

Past practice by drillers was to bury drill cuttings on site.

Marc Glass a remediation specialist for an environmental consulting firm said there’s evidence frack waste needs cleaned up.

While Communications Director at the DEP, Kelly Gillenwater reports, “no remediation of drilling sites has been deemed necessary due to drill cuttings. [DEP] took radiation meters to more than a dozen sites in 2014 as part of a project with [the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources] and no harmful levels of radiation were detected.”

Paul Ziemkiewicz, the director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, thinks hard data is needed.on shale gas drilling waste.

“The big question that’s still unanswered is whether this stuff is hazardous or not. And if it’s hazardous that starts informing what kind of landfill it ought to go into, what standards that landfill ought to be meeting,” said Ziemkiewicz.

Ziemkiewicz told Board it’s not that nobody knows what to do with this industrial waste. There are tests and procedures that other industries have to use, and states can require oil and gas companies to follow those requirements, too. That’s what Montana does.

Board suggests there are three lessons to be learned from Montana.