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NETL framework for assessing economic viability of recovering REEs from unconventional sources

The National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) has created a framework to assess the economic viability of recovering rare earth elements (REEs) from unconventional feedstocks such as coal and coal waste—an advance that is part of NETL efforts to unlock new domestic sources of critical minerals (CM) that can ease US dependence on foreign sources for the minerals. A paper on the work appears in Nature Sustainability.

The energy transition is causing demand for REEs to grow every year. The International Energy Agency estimates that demand may at least quadruple by 2040.

China has been the dominant global supplier of REEs since 1988, providing up to 95% of the global REE market annually. Unconventional REE sources such as domestic coal and coal waste could yield the materials needed for the strong magnets necessary to turn wind into electricity and operate electric vehicles.

In the paper, NETL experts Alison Fritz, Ph.D., and Thomas Tarka and Stanford University’s Megan Mauter, Ph.D., describe their work to create a new framework for assessing the economic viability of unconventional REE feedstocks.

There’s no doubt that sourcing REEs from unconventional feedstocks like secondary waste materials could have substantial environmental and societal–economic benefits if executed correctly. But its economic viability remains unclear. Without some clear metrics to evaluate recovery efforts, it is hard for industry leaders to understand whether the economics of important projects make sense.

—Alison Fritz, first author

Fritz said NETL created a framework to answer economic viability questions.

We started by developing an effective database of capital and operating expenses for REE recovery. That allowed us to establish consistent process unit costs for common stages in the conventional supply chain. We then used market prices to develop well-defined methods for determining diverse product values.

—Alison Fritz

A Department of Energy (DOE) report to Congress about REEs in 2022 noted that made many advancements toward the recovery of REE and CM from coal and coal byproducts—identifying significant REE resources in coal and coal byproducts and in what quantities and combinations, demonstrating that they can be extracted from coal, coal measures, coal ash, coal refuse, and acid mine drainage, and establishing first-of-a-kind pilots that produce high-purity REE from these feedstocks.

Fritz added that published information on aspects of the stages of commercial REE production is inconsistent.

In the absence of strong data on process costs, previous techno-economic assessments of unconventional feedstocks make highly inconsistent assumptions about refining costs and the appropriate discount applied for low-purity REE products. This inconsistency stymies comparisons between techno-economic assessments. We believe our framework can help correct those deficiencies.

—Alison Fritz


  • Fritz, A.G., Tarka, T.J. & Mauter, M.S. (2023) “Assessing the economic viability of unconventional rare earth element feedstocks.” Nat Sustain doi: 10.1038/s41893-023-01145-1


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