With a national reputation as a leader in rare earth extraction research, West Virginia University is poised to take another step in developing a domestic supply of rare earth minerals that are critical to national defense and U.S. economic security.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory has announced a $644,000 research grant to WVU to continue its research supporting DOE’s ongoing program to recover rare earth elements from coal and coal by-products. Since February 2016, the West Virginia Water Research Institute at WVU has led $5.6 million in research across four projects under that program, including $4.46 million in federal and $1.13 million in industry funds. The team’s research includes a current project to build a pilot scale processing plant on the WVU Evansdale campus
The newly-awarded grant will allow the WRI team to develop processes for upstream extraction, at the point of discharge, where operators are required to treat AMD, or “orange water,” the most familiar and abundant pollutant in West Virginia waters.
“This would further improve the economics of REE recovery by producing a purified product at the mine, dramatically reducing transportation and waste handling costs,” said Paul Ziemkiewicz, WRI’s Director and the project’s Principal Investigator. In addition, by offering the potential to integrate rare earth extraction and mine-side AMD remediation systems, the technology creates an economic asset that can be leveraged to improve those systems.
Ziemkiewicz will work with WVU co-investigators Lance Lin, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources; Harry Finklea, professor emeritus of Chemistry, Eberly College of Arts and Sciences; and Aaron Noble, associate professor at Virginia Tech’s Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering. The feedstocks produced by Lin and Finklea will be processed at the WVU pilot plant. The final product is expected to reach purity levels approaching 90 percent, effectively extracting from AMD a valuable and marketable commodity without having to ship the product for further processing.
WRI’s research is moving toward commercializing a process for recovering valuable rare earth elements from AMD. Currently, China controls about 98 percent of the world market for these minerals.
The WRI team received seed funding last year through WVU’s O’Brien Energy Research Fund to identify novel methods for recovering critical minerals. Ziemkiewicz pointed to this as an example of how to use seed funding to build strong, nationally competitive teams of scientists around emerging energy topics of national importance. The WVU Energy Institute administers a portion of the O’Brien gift to seed energy-related research at WVU, including six seed grants last year and an additional $250,000 slated for award by the end of this year.
Albert O’Brien was a WVU alumnus with a degree in chemistry who passed away in 1992. He was the founder and President of United Resins of Pittsgrove, New Jersey. “The generation of a reserve of critical minerals from coal mining pollution,” noted John Adams, Assistant Director for Business Operations at the WVU Energy Institute, “is just one example of how the estate of Albert O’Brien is having a real and critical impact on the state and national economies by promoting the work of WVU scientists.”