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Critical Minerals Projects Reaching Important Milestones with NETL Support
A photograph with elements from the periodc table edited to look like scrabble pieces.

NETL selected six projects last year to receive a total of nearly $1 million to create a sustainable supply chain of critical minerals (CMs), including rare earth elements (REEs), which are crucial to the development of clean energy and national defense technologies. These projects have since made great strides toward their objectives, including drafting a report to provide insights into consumption and price data, characterizing midstream REE concentrates, and conducting a value analysis to determine the recoverable value of REEs from acid mine drainage (AMD).

“With just over a year of work, our partners are already hitting important milestones,” said NETL’s Michael Fasouletos, who manages several CM projects. “If successful, these projects have the potential to make a real difference in distressed, coal-producing communities by revitalizing their economies with new industry while strengthening the nation’s supply chains of these valuable materials.”

For example, Microbeam Technologies Inc. has completed a characterization of midstream REE concentrates to determine CM abundance. The team also worked with coal mines to identify feedstocks that are rich in CMs, including germanium and gallium.

“A key member of the Microbeam team is Lattice Materials, LLC,” Fasouletos said. “They are the nation’s largest germanium crystal grower and a supplier of infrared optics, thin film coating targets and semiconductor fabrication to U.S. Department of Defense contractors. They also supply products to the automotive, aerospace and semiconductor industries. Therefore, characterization of these particular CMs is especially valuable to this team.”

The University of Utah (U of U) team has also hit a major project goal by completing their Market Demand and Applications Report. This report summarizes consumption and price data, including criticality indicators such as import reliance and importance to clean energy technology. 

“The U of U team is also well underway toward developing concepts for rare earth metal and CM production from coal and related resources,” Fasouletos said. “Success in this project will ultimately result in the implementation of new technologies that enable domestic production of needed high-purity REE/CM products from coal resources, which could also significantly boost the economies of disadvantaged coal communities.”

West Virginia University Research Corporation has teamed up with several industry partners, including Rivian Automotive Inc., an American electric vehicle automaker and automotive technology company and has analyzed AMD preconcentrate from an REE/CM recovery pilot plant.

“This group looked at how valuable the CMs would be coming from this AMD source,” Fasouletos said. “And the results showed that the overall contained value is nearly $2,000 per metric ton, which would make this environmentally benign process also economically attractive.”

In addition to the economic benefits both nationally and locally, each of these projects could help insulate manufacturers from disruptions in supply by consolidating the extraction and production of individual critical materials.

Stay tuned for a second news story in the coming weeks that will highlight milestones of the final three projects that were selected under this funding opportunity announcement.

NETL is a DOE 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.