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NETL Innovations Among Finalists for Prestigious 2022 R&D 100 Awards
TREE team members (top row from left) are Mengling Stuckman, Christina Lopano and Thomas Tarka. Second row from left are Ward Burgess, Jonathan Yang and Alison Fritz.

NETL’s Targeted Rare Earth Extraction (TREE) process, a groundbreaking approach to recover critical materials from coal and coal byproducts for manufacturing computers, clean energy technologies, defense systems and more, has been named a finalist in the 2022 R&D 100 Awards competition.

In addition, a fiber optic measurement tool, which was invented by the University of Pittsburgh with NETL as the co-developer to perform high spatial resolution temperature, strain and hydrogen measurements inside energy production systems such as nuclear reactors, solid oxide fuel cell assemblies and hydrogen gasification chambers, is a finalist for R&D 100 recognition in a separate category.

Winners and medalists in this prestigious competition, which drew entries from a dozen different countries and regions, will be announced on Monday, Aug. 22.

TREE is an environmentally friendly and cost-effective technology to extract rare earth elements and critical minerals (REEs-CMs) from a broad range of coal and coal-processing materials and waste streams, including bottom ash, fly ash, ponded ash and landfill ash.

NETL researchers developed the technology to help build a strong domestic supply chain of REEs-CMs. U.S. manufacturers need REEs-CMs to produce high-tech consumer products and electronics, electric and hybrid vehicles, solar panels, wind turbines and components for the nation’s defense. Currently, the United States imports greater than 80% of its REEs-CMs from offshore suppliers.

NETL’s revolutionary discovery also supports the development of technologies to decarbonize the U.S. electricity sector by 2035 and the economy by 2050 while creating good-paying, clean energy jobs in communities that have produced fossil fuels and fossil fuel-based power and have an abundance of coal and coal byproducts.

NETL’s low-cost innovation significantly improves upon current REE-CM extraction methods. TREE employs ambient temperatures and pressure, requires almost no material preprocessing and reduces the amounts of acids and organic solvents required to conduct extraction. NETL and its partners have worked in the Powder River Basin (PRB), a major coal-producing area in Wyoming and Montana. NETL researchers estimate 2,300 tons of REEs could be extracted per year from coal ash from the PRB if TREE was widely deployed in the region.

The members of NETL’s TREE research team are Ward Burgess, Alison Fritz, Christina Lopano, Mengling Stuckman, Thomas Tarka and Jonathan Yang. TREE was named a finalist in the Process/Prototyping category.

NuSense Technology — High Spatial Resolution Optical Sensors for Harsh Environments, an innovation submitted by the University of Pittsburgh with NETL as the co-developer, was named a finalist in the Analytical/Test category. NETL researcher Michael Buric serves on the project team. The Pitt-NETL researchers co-developed four patents for the technology. Besides Buric, NETL’s Kirk Gerdes, deputy director for Research & Innovation, contributed to the efforts to patent the technology.

NuSense is a disruptive optical fiber sensor technology that provides unprecedented measurement capabilities in environments previously thought impossible to probe. It can function in extreme environments found in nuclear reactor cores. The technology can be used to monitor structural health in critical energy production systems such as gas turbines, boiler tubes, reactor coolant pipes or core containment vessels. These measurements can provide critical early warnings before accidents or breakdowns occur.

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.

TREE team members (top row from left) are Mengling Stuckman, Christina Lopano and Thomas Tarka. Second row from left are Ward Burgess, Jonathan Yang and Alison Fritz.