National Electric Vehicle Sweden celebrates ground breaking for production and R&D in China
Toyota’s THUMS 5 software can model occupant posture immediately before collisions

DOE to award $20M to projects to recover rare earth elements from coal and coal byproducts

The US Department of Energy (DOE) has issued a funding opportunity (DE-FOA-0001202) that will award an estimated $20 million to projects quickly to develop bench scale and pilot scale projects for recovering Rare Earth Elements (REE)—a set of seventeen chemical elements in the periodic table and key components of electronics and renewable energy technologies—from coal and coal byproducts.

The DOE has begun investigating the economic feasibility of recovery of REEs from domestic United States coal and coal byproducts. n FY14, DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) conducted a preliminary, short-term, baseline field evaluation of coal and coal by-products as potential domestic resources of REEs. NETL has characterized a number of REE-bearing samples of coal and coal related materials, and posted the associated results and reports here.

Coal-Value-Chain
Source: DOE. Click to enlarge.

REEs have been generally found in varying concentrations ranging up to 1,000 parts per million by weight in the following materials in the United States: coal mine roof and floor materials; run-of-mine coal; prepared coal; partings; pit cleanings; coal preparation refuse; and tailings. REEs can be found in coal byproducts, including ash, coal-related sludge, and mine drainage.

Periodic-Table-1.5.2015
REEs are abundant in the earth’s crust but most often occur in low concentrations. They are not found in isolated form but in a variety of minerals where, in most cases, they exist in concentrations too small for economic extraction. The REEs are lanthanum (La), cerium (Ce), praseodymium (Pr), neodymium (Nd), promethium (Pm), samarium (Sm), europium (Eu), gadolinium (Gd), terbium (Tb), dysprosium (Dy), holmium (Ho), erbium (Er), thulium (Tm), ytterbium (Yb), and lutetium (Lu). The rare earths are also often taken to include the metals scandium (Sc) and yttrium (Y). Source: DOE. Click to enlarge.

Certain coals can contain a higher ratio of heavy (generally more valuable) REEs than found in other sources of REEs such as natural ores. Given the potentially low REE concentrations in the feed materials, and subsequent potentially low yield of REEs from any separation process, minimizing costs is a key challenge. Physical and chemical separations may be useful in recovering REEs from coal and coal byproducts. The forms in which REEs are present in these materials could drive the design of separation processes.

The new FOA has two specific areas of interest (AOI):

  1. Bench-scale technology to economically separate, extract, and concentrate mixed rees from coal and coal byproducts including aqueous effluents.

  2. Pilot-scale technology to economically separate, extract, and concentrate mixed rees from coal and coal byproduct solids.

For the purposes of the FOA, DOE defines bench-scale technology (AOI 1) as existing separations technology which has previously demonstrated success at the basic research level for recovery of REEs from coal and coal byproducts; is ready or near-ready for design at bench-scale to recover REEs, and should be ready at the completion of this project for scale-up to pilot-scale.

Pilot-scale technology (AOI 2) is defined as existing separations technology which has previously demonstrated success at bench-scale for recovery of REEs from coal and coal byproducts; is ready or near-ready for design at pilot-scale to recover REEs; and should be ready at the completion of this project for scale-up to commercial-scale.

The DOE says that adapting separations technology previously used for other mineral processing applications will provide a pathway for identification of technology for recovery of coal-based REEs. Thus, DOE is seeking innovative applications of existing separation technologies for recovery of REEs from coal and coal byproducts.

These technologies may include combinations of physical separations, such as gravity concentration, flotation, magnetic, and electrostatic separations, as well as combinations of physical and chemical separations, with the latter category including leaching and/or ion exchange from rock, underclay, or other material associated with a coal seam. Separation processes may also include hydrometallurgical processing and processes to co-recover mixed REEs and other useful materials from coal and coal byproducts.

The resulting total concentration of mixed REEs in the final product from the proposed recovery process should approach 2 wt% to be of interest to commercialization. The process designs proposed should minimize or reduce the environmental, safety, and health impact of radioactive and other byproducts, and optimize the overall economics of the separation and recovery process.

Comments

kalendjay

What took so long to propose this? At this point, the hunt for REE's may be most relevant for the nuclear industry. Europium, Gadolinium and Yttrium are actively researched as neutron absorbers and fuel cladding. Complementing the thermal neutron spectrums for newer concept fuels and reactor types (such as molten salt reactors) is apparently the key. Lanthanide reprocessing is a necessary key to some molten salt reactor management such as the proposed EVOL. More extraction then on the way, for even rarer products such as rhenium.

A golden age for REE's?

Engineer-Poet

I recall reading that the Manhattan project obtained some of its uranium from lignite deposits; the lignite was burned and the ash shipped off to be refined for its uranium content.

Thorium and REEs have similar chemical properties, and Th is a factor in the economic viability of some REE ores because it is expensive to separate.  It currently has little commercial value, but that is mostly policy.

The upshot of this is that coal-ash dumps might not just yield the materials for magnets and electronics, but also the replacement for coal itself.  If we ever took the job of cleanup seriously (isolating the toxic heavy metals in the ash) we could do much worse than using the materials pulled out to get rid of the problem at the source.

The comments to this entry are closed.