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Researchers Seek To Extract Rare Earth Minerals From Coal
April 1, 2016

With supplies growing scarce of essential materials needed to make products ranging from smart phones to windmills, Virginia Tech researchers are working with academic and industry partners in a $1 million pilot project to recover rare earth elements from coal.

Virginia Tech engineers have developed a way to extract valuable rare earth minerals from coal and coal byproducts. Eventually they hope to construct a mobile pilot plant in Southwest Virginia. Image courtesy of Virginia Tech.

Funded in part by a U.S. Department of Energy National Energy Technology Laboratory grant, Virginia Tech engineers will test HHS technology, a patented process that takes advantage of properties of water-friendly and water-repellent materials to extract rare earth elements from coal waste, according to a University Distinguished Professor Roe-Hoan Yoon, the director of the Center for Advanced Separation Technologies and the Nicholas T. Camicia Professor of Mining and Materials Engineering.

The research effort is led by principal investigator Rick Honaker, a professor and chair of the Department of Engineering at the University of Kentucky, who received his undergraduate and graduate engineering degrees at Virginia Tech. Researchers from West Virginia University (WVU) and representatives from five corporate partners are also part of the team.

The pilot effort is important because rare earth materials, used to create powerful permanent magnets in products as common as computer hard drives to electric motors, are in increasingly short supply, particularly heavy rare earth elements, researchers said.

“Domestic supply of rare earth materials is critical for the U.S. manufacturing industry,” said U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, who represents Virginia’s 9th district in the U.S. House of Representatives. “As the nation moves toward electric-drive vehicles, wind farming, and other sustainable energy measures, it is important to develop a reliable source of essential materials. In addition, we will develop new, cleaner applications for coal and coal byproducts to revitalize the mining industry.”

The U.S. has 10.9 million tons of rare earth resources in coal deposits located in just five western and four eastern states, including Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia, according to the U.S. Geological Survey Coal Quality Database.

If the currently funded Phase I project is successful, researchers will seek $6 million in Phase II funding that will involve construction and testing of a mobile facility to be tested at different coal cleaning facilities in the central Appalachian coal field.

This article reprinted from materials provided by Virginia Tech. ##

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