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NETL Achieves Technological Milestones in Rare Earth Element Supply Chain Research

NETL’s Research & Innovation Center’s (RIC) work to develop domestic supply chains of critical minerals (CMs) and rare earth elements (REEs) from unconventional sources such as carbon ore ash, acid mine drainage and other sources has resulted in several milestones in technological applications of sensors and geoscience.

REE’s are essential to the energy, defense, medical and consumer technology manufacturing industries. Supply and access to those elements are critical for the U.S. economy. However, a majority of the world’s REE sources are controlled by other countries, which is why NETL is pursuing alternative sources closer to home. The RIC has identified America’s rich deposits of carbon ore, along with acid mine drainage from prior and current mining operations, as potential sources of REEs and other critical minerals.

In collaboration with partners in academia and industry across the country, the RIC has had three goals throughout its research efforts:

  1. Develop methods to locate promising unconventional CM reserves. 
  2. Develop and test technologies to extract and concentrate CMs from carbon ore sources, with a focus on environmentally beneficial pathways that address legacy energy production impacts or reduce waste.
  3. Increase potential for technology commercialization through the use of modeling and analysis for rapid process optimization and scale-up, and identifying process bottlenecks and guiding commercialization efforts.

As a result, the RIC developed a first-of-a-kind “real-time sensor” that cuts the analysis time of REE concentrations in samples from hours to minutes or even seconds. The RIC also developed an unconventional rare-earth and critical mineral model and tool to improve prediction and identification of domestic carbon ore-based resource locations that contain high concentrations of REEs.

Almost all conventional REE extraction processes use harsh chemicals and frequently operate at high temperatures. But to ensure the long-term sustainability of REE extraction, NETL researchers developed multiple low-cost and low-impact extraction pathways that use environmentally benign chemicals or no chemicals at all while operating at or near ambient temperatures and pressures. These pathways reduce costs and the amount of energy needed to power the extraction processes, and, unlike conventional extraction methods, they don’t affect the host materials that contain REEs.

NETL also performed research and development for screening REE extraction processes, and completed two techno-economic analysis screening assessments of RIC-developed extraction pathways to inform process development. These efforts have included the development and evaluation of conceptual process flowsheets in coordination with researchers.

“Since 2015, NETL’s RIC has achieved many milestones to help overcome the obstacles on the path to being self-sufficient in REE production,” said Thomas Tarka of NETL’s Strategic Systems Analysis & Engineering Directorate. “For example, we completed successful demonstration and commercialization of equipment that will enable REE prospecting in real-time process control, which is currently not possible due to lag in analysis time. With the right technology and sourcing REEs from carbon ore, we can meet the needs of the economy, provide new good-paying jobs and be responsible environmental stewards. NETL remains committed to realizing this vision.”

NETL is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory that drives innovation and delivers technological solutions for an environmentally sustainable and prosperous energy future. By leveraging its world-class talent and research facilities, NETL is ensuring affordable, abundant and reliable energy that drives a robust economy and national security, while developing technologies to manage carbon across the full life cycle, enabling environmental sustainability for all Americans.