A pilot-scale facility that extracts valuable rare earth elements from coal waste byproducts officially opened its doors this week at West Virginia University.
Advocates of the project are hopeful that environmental waste left by Appalachia’s coal mining legacy could one day fuel an economic boom in the region while also providing some national security.
"This could go a long way forward in creating new economic opportunity for West Virginia and this region and treat acid mine drainage, and turn it into a financial boon instead of a financial burden," Brian Anderson, director of WVU’s Energy Institute told the crowd.
The Rare Earth Extraction Facility located at the National Research Center for Coal and Energy on WVU's Evansdale campus in Morgantown is a collaboration between the university, the Department of Energy (DOE) and private partners.
The research facility extracts valuable rare earth elements from acid mine drainage (AMD), which is the most abundant pollutant in West Virginia waters. In just West Virginia and Pennsylvania, it’s estimated that about 10,000 miles of streams are polluted by AMD.
17 rare earth elements exist on the planet and they’re used in everything from cellphones to stealth bombers. While ubiquitous in the earth's crust, they're called "rare" because they don't exist anywhere in concentrated amounts. Currently, China dominates the global rare earth elements market.
"Without those rare earth elements, we can’t have energy security, we can’t have financial security, we can’t have defense security," said Steven Winberg, assistant secretary for fossil energy at the Department of Energy. "That’s how impactful this is."
Developing a domestic source of rare earth elements is a research priority for the DOE. The agency kicked in much of the funding for the pilot facility and researchers from the National Energy Technology Laboratory have participated in the project.
Still More to Learn
At the pilot plant, sludge from the nearby Omega Mine in Grafton is treated with a series of acidic chemicals. Then, it’s filtered through up to 100 milk carton-sized mixers that quietly whir, no louder than your run-of-the-mill fan. At every stage, the rare earth elements separate out.
What remains is a concentrated amalgamation of a bunch of rare earth elements that will need to be further processed.
Paul Ziemkiewicz is director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute and the lead developer behind this project. He said it’s likely the elements will separate at some degree.
"But we won’t really know until we run this thing," he said.
The pilot plant aims to iron out the kinks before this process can be scaled up, but if it can be done, Ziemkiewicz believes it could mean an economic windfall for the region. His team estimates Appalachia’s coal sludge could produce up to 800 tons of these elements each year, worth more than $190 million.
He said they hope to be able to scale up the project for commercial use within five years.