Director's Corner

Release Date: July 12, 2017

NETL and the Hunt for Rare Earth Elements in Coal and Coal-Byproducts


Most people know about the rich energy heritage of coal and how it was used for almost two centuries to build industries, create jobs and make America strong in a challenging world. Now, we could be on the verge of adding to coal’s legacy by finding new efficient, economical ways to extract rare earth elements (REEs) from coal and coal by products.

REEs, are 17 elements found in the Earth’s crust that have unique chemical properties that make them important components in products that people all over the world use every day. Our electronics, computers, health care equipment, national defense technologies and hundreds of other products use REEs and their special properties to help make our lives better.

At NETL, we are engaged in research to discover a range of technologies that will help the United States become a more robust source of these materials—work that will contribute to our economy and help make our Nation safer and less reliant on foreign sources for these important elements.

We are working on ways to identify coal-based resources of REEs with new systems analysis and sensors; the best ways to transfer evolving commercial REE separation systems to the private sector; and designing, constructing, and operating pilot-scale systems that can produce high-purity REEs from coal and coal by-products.

NETL isn’t alone in the hunt for coal and coal by-product REEs. We have partnered with the best researchers in academia and private industry. For example, we are working with West Virginia University to study the feasibility of extracting REEs from solid residues left over after treatment of acid mine drainage.

NETL research has resulted in four patent applications including one for a fiber optic sensor that can detect REE levels in fluids.

There’s much work before us, but with the skills and experience of NETL researchers engaged, coal can continue to play a major role in our Nation’s economic future. We welcome the challenge and intend to pursue it with the same diligence that our Laboratory always uses in support of a strong energy future for America.

As Acting Director of NETL, Sean I. Plasynski, Ph.D., builds on an extensive background in energy as he leads NETL in its mission to enhance the nation’s energy independence and protect the environment for future generations. For more information about Sean Plasynski's experience, please click here.