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“Materials Science Profiles of Progress” – REE Extraction From Coal

In the fairy tale realm, Rumpelstilskin was able to turn straw into gold.

Meanwhile, in the real world, as part of our feature series “Materials Science Profiles of Progress,” we’re taking a closer look at a recently-announced research partnership that may not be able to turn straw into gold, but promises to extract precious Rare Earth Elements from coal.

A new Department of Energy grant-funded program bringing together a consortium of research entities and private companies including Penn State University, Texas Minerals Resources Corp., Inventure Renewables, and K Technologies seeks to evaluate ways to extract Rare Earth Elements from coal overburden, the material that sits atop a coal seam, provided by Pennsylvania-based Jeddo Coal Co.

According to the Republican Herald, “[t]he processing method is being developed in conjunction with Penn State and relies on continuous ion exchange and ion chromatography — which is believed to be cleaner and more efficient than the solvent exchange method that is presently used for processing rare earth elements.”

While touring Jeddo Coal Co.’s mining facilities near Stockton Mountain in Pennsylvania, which are currently idling but are set to become the site of operation for the consortium, Energy Secretary Rick Perry touted the program which he considered “staggeringly important” and the role it could play in reducing our nation’s over-reliance on foreign imports of REE materials used in high-tech 21st Century applications:

“I don’t think we can overstate how important the development of rare earth minerals out of our anthracite coal is, and the potential that it’s going to have. (…) I think it’s a really important message coming from this administration that whether it’s rare minerals, whether it’s that load of coal that’s headed to Ukraine, the future is bright. (…) We’re going to find the ways to use this natural resource that we have to the betterment not just to America, but to our allies as well.”

Perry was joined by Rep. Lou Barletta (R, PA-11), who was one of the earliest congressional backers of the program. Barletta argued at the time of the grant announcement:

“The Department of Energy’s studies have shown that the Appalachian coal fields throughout northeastern Pennsylvania contain some of the highest concentrations of Rare Earth Elements. (…) These elements are critical components of everyday electronics and equipment used in the health care, transportation, and defense industries.  With our abundance of anthracite, we have the potential to create and support good-paying jobs, not just in the coal industry, but in manufacturing and related industries that rely on these elements.

It is critical for our national security that we turn to a domestic source of these minerals. Our military should not have to rely on China or any other country for the resources necessary to keep us safe, especially when those resources are readily available right here in Pennsylvania.” 

Similar projects are in the works around the country, with a West Virginia University’s Energy Institute project having moved into phase two of its efforts to recover REEs from coal mine drainage.  The Department of Energy is looking to award a substantially bigger grant of $20 million to the project that shows the greatest potential for extracting Rare Earths from coal in an economically viable fashion.

None of these projects may be able to compete with Rumpelstiltskin, but we also don’t live in a fairy tale world.  Considering that – after a brief dip thanks to a now-bankrupt domestic REE mining operation – our import dependency for REEs is back at 100%, it is quite an encouraging real-world development to see that policy makers, private sector executives and public university scientists are realizing the importance of this issue, and we’ll keep monitoring the progress of these projects.