“Rare Earths” from Coal Waste

February 18, 2022

Coal Ash pond at DTE plant juts out into Lake Erie

Houston Chronicle:

The Biden administration is studying the cost of building a refinery to extract the minerals and metals used in clean energy technology from coal waste.

The Department of Energy put out a request Monday for input on designing and building a commercial-scale facility capable of extracting rare earth elements and critical minerals from the billions of tons of waste produced by coal mining and power plants, with $140 million in federal funding.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said the facility would be the, “first of its kind,” making use of what is currently an untapped resource for critical minerals.

“Applying next-generation technology to convert legacy fossil fuel waste into a domestic source of critical minerals needed to strengthen our supply chains is a win-win,” she said in a statement.

Last week scientists at Rice University reported they had successfully used high heat to extract rare earth metals from coal ash, electronic waste and byproducts from aluminum processing at much faster rates than previous technology, making the process commercially viable. 

James Tour, a chemistry professor at Rice, said there were large quantities of rare earth metals like lanthanide and scandium, which are used in electronics and clean energy, contained in the coal ash that is left over when coal is burned in power plants.

“We have mountains of it,” he said.

The federal subsidy for the refinery stems from last year’s $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which along with traditional funding for roads and bridges contained close to $100 billion for clean energy.

Supply chains for critical minerals like cobalt, indium and neodymium, used in the manufacturing of batteries, solar panels and wind turbines, have become of increasing concern in Washington as the world shifts towards clean energy to combat climate change.

China has come to dominate the extraction and processing of those materials over the past two decades, with mining networks stretching across Africa, Asia and South America.

What materials the United States does mine itself are currently being shipped overseas to be processed, the Department of Energy said.


2 Responses to ““Rare Earths” from Coal Waste”

  1. Keith McClary Says:

    Pardon my cynicism, but will this involve a subsidy to the coal industry?

    • gmrmt Says:

      Technically the coal industry owns it’s own waste but I wouldn’t worry. Since rare earths are used in solar panels the net effect would be to make REs cheaper and the panels that are made from them. Solar is already cheaper than coal electricity generation in many places. This would just hasten the process.
      It will also provide some impetus and funds to actually deal with the literal mountains of coal waste.

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