The coal industry’s future may have much more to do with building smartphones, wind turbines and missile defense radar than billowing smoke stacks and environmental finger pointing, say federal coal advisers and experts.
The direction of the industry is aimed at harvesting what are known as “rare earth elements,” for which the U.S. industry depends on China.
The 19 elements are key ingredients in building complex electronics used in smartphones, jets, defense applications, advanced wind turbines and renewable energy, not to mention light-emitting diodes, or LEDs.
The bottom line is that the U.S. needs to diversify its supply of the minerals, and the coal industry is the nation’s best ticket to do that.
“To the extent that the administration is interested in and regards national defense as a strong national priority, I would think that they are very interested in securing a secure supply of rare earth elements that don’t rely on China,” said Paul Ziemkiewicz, West Virginia University’s water research director, who is at the forefront of transitioning the coal industry into a source of raw materials and mineral security.
The U.S. uses about 15,000 tons of rare earth elements every year, with about 800 tons of that going to the defense industry, he said. “And that’s for high-performance radars, sensors, magnets, some very specialized applications that [should] rely on a strategic reserve in this country.”
In 2016 alone, the U.S. imported more than one-half of its supply of 50 types of minerals, eight of which are identified as rare earth elements critical to the economy, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Of those 50 minerals, the U.S. was 100 percent dependent on imports for 20 of them, including all eight critical and rare earth minerals. New data released this year showed that rare earth mining was nonexistent in the U.S. in 2016, while China continued to expand its market and dominate the global supply chain.