Program Overview
Data Projection The 17 element group known as rare earth elements (REEs) provides significant value to our national security, energy independence, environmental future, and economic growth. The REE Program is focused on developing technologies for the recovery of REEs from Coal and Coal By-products. 

Program Overview

Background/History

Background

Flyover of coal material samplesFlyover of coal material samples.

DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy (FE) is charged with ensuring the availability of ultraclean (near-zero emissions), abundant, low-cost domestic energy from coal to fuel economic prosperity, strengthen energy independence, and enhance environmental quality. As a component of that effort, the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) is engaged in research, development, and demonstration (RD&D) activities to create technology and technology-based policy options for public benefit. The REE from Coal and Coal By-Products program is designed to remove environmental concerns related to coal use by developing a portfolio of innovative technologies, including those for carbon capture and storage (CCS) and the economic recovery of REEs from coal and coal by-product streams.

History

In 2009, interest in strategic materials intensified culminating in discussions regarding our nation’s ability to secure reliable supplies of rare earth metals (and other strategic materials). Strategic materials were identified as critical for growing the U.S. green energy and electronics industries as well as for specialty military applications. In 2010, the DOE released the first Critical Materials Strategy and NETL initiated a small investigative effort to explore the concept of extracting rare earth elements from coal and coal by-products. Congress has since recognized the importance of this resource to U.S. economic security and appropriated funding in FY2014 to identify the magnitude of the resource, develop capabilities to economically recover rare earth metals in an environmentally responsible manner, and provide an additional domestic, secure, and reliable resource for future advanced technology industries in United States.

In 2014, NETL expanded its efforts to assess the potential resource base for rare earth metals contained within underground coal resources and coal by-product waste streams from coal cleaning operations and power plants (post combustion material). Initial research identified potential “hot spots” in select coal seams for rare earth elements and confirmed that the quantity of these elements varied depending on geology, location, and other factors that were not yet fully understood. Efforts to explore the available technology for extracting these vital elements were undertaken leading to the conclusion that additional research and technology development would be needed to convert this resource into a viable domestic commodity.

Rare Earth Elements from Coal and Coal By-Products R&D Program

 Phillip Tinker of the Pittsburgh Analytics Lab (PAL) removes a sample from the Phoenix CEM microwave oven operating at 1100°C. The oven is used to melt a solid sample into a glass that is readily digested by weak acid. Phillip Tinker of the Pittsburgh Analytics Lab (PAL) removes a sample from the Phoenix CEM microwave oven operating at 1100°C. The oven is used to melt a solid sample into a glass that is readily digested by weak acid.

 Robert Thompson of the Pittsburgh Analytics Lab explains the laser abalation techniques of the inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer (ICPMS). Robert Thompson of the Pittsburgh Analytics Lab explains the laser abalation techniques of the inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer (ICPMS) (click to view larger).
 Tracy Bank of the Pittsburgh Analytics Lab inserts a sample in to the inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer (ICPMS). Tracy Bank of the Pittsburgh Analytics Lab inserts a sample in to the inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer (ICPMS). (click to view larger)

The Rare Earth Elements (REE) from Coal and Coal By‐Products RD&D Program consists of five core technology areas that are focused on development of REE separation and recovery technologies, addressing the current global REE separations market and process economics, and demonstrating the generation of environmentally benign REE separation processing capabilities. Our nation’s vast coal resources contain quantities of REEs that offer the potential to reduce our dependence on others for these critical materials and create new industries in regions where coal plays an important economic role. The development of an economically competitive supply of REEs will secure and maintain our nation’s economic growth and national security. 

Program Goals

The overall objective of this program is to demonstrate the techno‐economic feasibility of domestic REE separation technologies by 2023‐2025. Technologies for recovering REEs are focused on separating REEs from coal and/or coal by‐products containing a minimum of 300 ppm total REEs, and concentrating the REEs to a level greater than or equal to 2 wt% in resulting processed streams. This will be accomplished through conduct of laboratory REE separation projects and demonstration of concept feasibility at bench‐ scale through pilot‐scale facilities, ultimately readying REE separations technology for commercial deployment.  Co‐production of materials and/or critical elements, successful demonstration of environmentally benign processing, and competitive economics are key critical areas for success of this program.

Three overarching goals have been defined for the REE Program. 

  • Develop technologies that can be economically deployed, enabling additional domestic supply of REEs
  • Reduce the environmental impact of coal and REE production through advances in REE production from coal and coal by-products
  • Deliver advanced technologies that can be developed and manufactured within the United States

Technologies and Research Focus Areas

The REE Program is comprised of Key Focus Areas: (1) Resource Sampling and Characterization; (2) Separation Technology Development; (3) REE Sensor Development; (4) Process & Systems Modeling; and (5) Techno-economic Analysis

  • Resource Sampling and Characterization - While significant progress has been made in identifying field site locations and  compositional assessment of potential coal and coal by‐product REE‐containing materials, continued effort is essential to identify the “best” source of materials to support future commercial REE production.    Chemical and physical characterization efforts, addressing REE elemental concentrations and phase compositions in the coal and coal by‐product resources are essential in the development of viable REE separation processes.
  • Separation Technology Development – NETL is developing REE separation and extraction capabilities from coal‐based resources such as coal, coal refuse, clay/sandstone over/under‐burden materials, aqueous effluents, and power generation ash. The REE programisfocused on developing economically feasible and environmentally benign technologies for separating REEs from resources starting with a minimum of 300 ppm total REEs, and concentrating to a 2wt% mixed total REE oxide in the resulting processed material.   
  • REE Sensor Development – Development of portable sensors for field site identification of promising REE coal‐based resources, as well as devices for determination of REE concentrations in process separation flow streams is being considered.  Tentatively these technologies will be tested in the field, at bench‐scale separations test facilities, and validated to commercial‐ready status during use in pilot‐scale demonstration projects.
  • Process & Systems Modeling – Modeling efforts are being focused on development of multi‐ phase flow with interphase eXchanges (MFIX) computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software to simulate REE separation and optimization of the separation process. This effort is being conducted in close coordination with researchers who are developing and/or demonstrating viable 2nd Generation and/or advanced, new/novel REE separation concepts. The CFD models will be used as virtual test platforms to optimize process separation designs and ultimately package the modeling capability into a generalized toolset for public distribution as part of technology transfer.
  • Techno-economic Analysis – Techno‐economic analyses are being conducted to evaluate the international rare earth element market and to assess the economics of commercially producing REEs from currently considered 2nd Generation and Transformational separation processes. An REE market characterization will be performed and coal‐based REE economic baseline/cost targets assessing potential benefits and job creation document will be undertaken.

Environmental concerns related to processing REEs from coal and coal by-products will be an underlying element of the five focus areas above. Learn more about the background of Rare Earth Elements here.