Features - October 2016

Elementary: Coal and Rare Earth Elements at NETL


Everyone’s heard of iron, nickel, copper, and tin. But how often have you heard about europium, terbium, and yttrium?

Believe it or not, though these names may sound peculiar, you rely on these elements every day. They surround us, seamlessly integrated into our modern lives in ways that may surprise you. From the smart phones that you rely on to the vehicle you drive to the fluorescent light bulbs that illuminate your office—rare earth elements (REEs) are an integral part of modern technology.


REEs include just 17 elements out of the 118 that form the periodic table, but the special properties they offer make them some of the most critical resources our country relies on. Because of their unique magnetic, luminescent, catalytic, and electrochemical traits, REEs are an essential component of thousands of advanced technologies including computers, medical devices, wind turbines, catalysts, and even missile guidance systems. Although the quantity of REEs needed for each device may seem minimal in comparison to the other elements of a system, they’re an irreplaceable component, which is why ensuring access to these elements is crucial to the safety and economic prosperity of our country.

In 1993, REE production was spread out across the world—38 percent from China, 33 percent from the United States, 12 percent from Australia, and 5 percent from other nations. By 2011, China had become the primary source of REEs, accounting for over 95 percent of the world’s production! Around the same time, the Department of Energy (DOE)—having recognized how essential REEs are to modern energy technologies—released the first Critical Materials Strategy, a proactive approach to guaranteeing U.S. access to REEs and other critical minerals. Under this plan, the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) initiated an investigative effort to determine the potential viability of extracting REEs from coal and coal by-products.

In 2014, Congress recognized the importance of cultivating an economically feasible, environmentally sustainable domestic source of REEs and allocated funding to programs contributing to this effort. Consequentially, NETL has expanded its efforts, developing a robust Rare Earth Elements from Coal and Coal By‚ÄźProducts R&D Program with the goal of demonstrating the validating of technical and economical feasibility of prototype salable high purity REE systems by 2020.

NETL’s REE Program is currently focused on:

  • Resource Sampling and Characterization—In order to develop domestic sources of fossil fuel derived REEs, the resources must first be identified. This task focuses on identifying promising field sites and performing the compositional assessments that will determine what locations offer the most potential for future commercial production.
  • Separation Technology DevelopmentWhile the concept of coal and coal byproduct REE extraction is promising, technology must be developed to make that idea a reality. NETL is committed to developing separation and extraction capabilities that are economic, efficient, and environmentally friendly.
  • Process System DevelopmentFrom the laboratory bench through scale up to demonstration and commercialization, it is necessary to validate REE separation system performance at every stage. The ultimate goal of NETL’s REE program is to separate and concentrate the REEs contained in coal and coal-related resources, opening the door to further processing techniques that can generate high-purity, salable, rare earth elements.
  • Techno-Economic Analysis—Understanding the global REE market is an important element of the DOEs Critical Materials Strategy. The NETL REE program also recognizes the necessity of the larger picture, and, resultantly, this task is charged with evaluating the international market and assessing the economics of coal-based REE production. This analysis will be used to assess the potential benefits and possible job creation from such an industry.

For more information on NETL’s Rare Earth Elements from Coal and Coal By-Products Program visit: https://www.netl.doe.gov/research/coal/rare-earth-elements