Monday, November 20, 2017

Researchers find way to economically produce rare-earth minerals from coal; pilot plant planned

"University of Kentucky researchers have produced nearly pure rare-earth concentrates from Kentucky coal using an environmentally-conscious and cost-effective process, a groundbreaking accomplishment in the energy industry," the university says in a news release.

The Hicks Dome area of Southern Illinois is considered a
good potential source of coal for rare-earth production.
The 19 rare-earth elements are used in essential parts of smartphones and other high-technology devices, including missiles and other military hardware, but the market for them "has been all but monopolized by China," The New York Times reports. That has created urgency in the U.S. for alternate sources of the elements, and the Kentucky researchers tested coal with the help of a Department of Energy grant and a process for which they are seeking a patent.

"It wouldn't take very much for China to turn the switch off and then we would be in a lot of trouble," said Rick Honaker, a mining-engineering professor who co-developed the process, told The Rural Blog. China's control of the market also makes it possible to reduce rare-earth prices to quash competition, but U.S. companies could choose to contract with U.S. suppliers for reasons of security, and there is talk of federal subsidies to help them do so.

Rare earths have long been recoverable from coal and its waste products, but not economically, Honaker said. "The real breakthrough was economics," he said. "You could set up an operation today and make money." He said in the news release, "As far as I know, our team is the first in the world to have provided a 98 percent pure rare earth concentrate from a coal source. . . . We are excited about the new development and look forward to testing the process in our pilot-scale facility which will be operational during spring 2018."

Honaker said certain coal seams or areas affected by volcanic activity have the greatest potential; one is the Hicks Dome area in Southern Illinois and Western Kentucky, where the geology has long produced fluorspar, a mineral critical to certain industrial uses.

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