MORGANTOWN — The development of a steady domestic supply of crucial rare-earth elements has been in the works for some time, and mining engineers at West Virginia University are among those working toward that goal.
Scandium, yttrium, lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium and lutetium are the 17 REEs. These elements play a vital role in technologies ranging from green energy and consumer electronics to missile defense systems and aerospace applications.
However, an ongoing issue with these elements is that the global supply comes from just one source. This could mean supply disruptions at a time when demand for rare-earth elements is only going up.
“Rare earth elements are critical to the high-tech industry and to national defense, but we heavily rely on China to supply these elements,” said Qingqing Huang, an assistant professor of mining engineering. “Right now, we have an urgent need to develop our own supply chain in the country.”
Huang said China supplies more than 80% of REE global consumption while possessing about 37% of worldwide reserves. Thus, the U.S. Department of Energy is investing millions of dollars in projects to develop a domestic source from coal and coal refuse in order to stave off any potential disruption.
Such a project has been ongoing for years between the West Virginia Water Research Institute at WV and the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) just outside Morgantown. The two entities worked together to open the Rare Earth Element Extraction Facility on the Evansdale Campus to research the retrieval of REEs from coal sludge.
Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, said one of the ongoing challenges of REE extraction from coal is getting high enough concentrations to be worth the effort. If that can be achieved, a whole new industry could emerge that cleans up the environment while retrieving these vital elements.
Huang said improvements are being made to bring this concept closer to fruition.
“We have been successful in the lab producing highly enriched rare-earth products. Now we are moving to scale up that testing,” she said. “This is exciting because it is something that has not been done in the past and will provide a critical domestic source of rare-earth elements if successful.”
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