Researchers at state universities in the Southeast are closing in on whether one of the region’s biggest liabilities – coal mine waste – might become a valuable asset by supplying rare earth elements needed for clean energy and other applications.
The answer lies in whether the University of Kentucky, Virginia Tech and West Virginia University, working with federal energy laboratories, a few coal companies and large manufacturers, can identify ways and locations to economically extract and process rare earth elements from the waste streams left over from mining coal throughout Appalachia and Western Kentucky.
“We’re working with members of the coal industry and state agencies that are engaged in treating AMD (acid mine drainage) solids to sample their waste streams, said Paul Ziemkiewicz, the lead researcher who heads the West Virginia University’s (WVU) research with colleagues Xingbo Liu and Aaron Noble at its Water Research Institute in Morgantown.
The collaborative effort faces its first key milestone this summer when it completes the first of two phases under $7 million of federal funding, said Roe-Hoan Yoon, the lead researcher at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. The first $1 million is to produce a report summarizing their research findings to date.
Phase two, budgeted at $6 million, is to design a mobile pilot processing plant that could move among several sites, may be at risk if Congress does not pass a budget for the current or next fiscal year, which begins October 1. Yoon estimated the cost to build such a pilot facility at about $20 million.
“When you look at the list of what (REEs) we import, where we import it from, and what it is used for, it quickly becomes clear that we have a very real problem on our hands,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, chair of the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing Tuesday. “If we let this go unchecked, we will come to a day of reckoning … when we simply cannot acquire a mineral, or when the market for a mineral changes so dramatically, that entire industries are affected.”