Coal Age

JUL-AUG 2017

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28 July/August 2017 reclaiming rare earths Government Bankrolls Initial Efforts to Extract Rare Earths From Coal Waste The Department of Energy is funding coal research that could help yield metals of critical military and strategic importance by 2020, but to do so must meet strict regulations and face entrenched Chinese competition by jesse morton, technical writer The day may come when a coal miner processes waste and overburden to com- mercially produce rare earth elements (REEs) for domestic and foreign markets. If the government, a handful of academ- ics, and some dedicated companies have anything to do with it, that day may arrive within a half-decade. Meanwhile, high in the Mohave desert, an idled open-pit mine stands testament to a different fu- ture. A researcher of the Molycorp Moun- tain Pass REEs mine bankruptcy says that government involvement in REEs extraction from coal amounts to lit- tle more than a political stunt, some well-meaning theater to benefit belea- guered energy sector players that once contributed to political campaigns. Both camps, however, acknowledge that if REEs can be economically pro- duced from coal, then the black rock will suddenly be doing more than light- ing the night. It might save America from a massive power grab by the totali- tarian Chinese. REEs are not particularly rare. With the right technology and systems in place, they could be a byproduct of a number of mines, to include those producing iron, uranium and phos- phate. REEs are so known because while they may not be uncommon, they are often found in traces and, yearly, are produced in comparatively limited quantities globally. They are used in most modern computerized electronics. REE- based polymers make up the circuitry and electrical components of your in- cab computer, for example. And no mat- ter where on Earth they are mined, those components are the product of a value chain owned almost exclusively by Chi- na. Specifically, two cities, Bautou and Ganzho, are referred to as "rare earth cit- ies," where oxides are transformed into magnets, lasers, and alloys for circuits and chips. For easy access to those parts, American companies set up or contract factories in China. Chinese companies then have easy access to American in- tellectual property to craft cheap knock- offs. Some within the U.S. government are increasingly concerned about a U.S. military entirely dependent on a value chain owned and located in China. Of equal concern should be America's ad- diction to technology. A scan of the daily headlines reveals a country headed toward automated everything, to include some aspects of government. If all things remain equal, that automated future will be brought to Americans by China. China has deep-seated totalitarian tendencies, to include automated blanket surveillance and censorship, and an emergent citizen digital rating system, where the govern- ment rates each citizen based on both public (and, soon, private) information. That rating can be referenced by employ- ers, creditors, insurers, hospitals, edu- cators and permitting bodies. When the Pentagon contracts for cruise missiles or fighter jets, it imports a bit of that. And when someone equips their mine for In- dustry 4.0, they do too. REEs in Coal Coal is now proposed as one of the first stepping stones on the path to self-suf- ficiency regarding raw REEs supply. In- deed, bound in coal, alongside other elements, are some heavy REEs that have military and strategic applications. Vari- ous university studies reveal that, while concentrations vary, both heavy and light REEs are found in coal mines around the country. A white paper released this year by a team from Southern Illinois Univer- sity titled Chemical Extraction of Rare Earth Elements From Coal Ash reported "14 coal samples of different coal ranks, from lignite to anthracite, originating from all over the country indicated a maximum coal ash REE content of more than 700 parts per million (ppm) for the highest rank coal sample." Most of the REEs were light. "A maximum of 27% of (heavy) REEs was found in a low volatile bituminous coal sample." Higher rank coals contain more of the heavy REEs, which see higher demand than the light elements. Acid leaching and solvent ex- traction tests revealed possible process- es for recovery. A paper by a team from the Univer- sity of Kentucky released this year and titled Process Evaluation and Flowsheet Development for the Recovery of Rare Earth Elements From Coal and Associated Byproducts reported that samples from three operating coal processing plants revealed REE concentrations "from around 300 ppm to as high as 1,308 ppm on an ash basis. The values ranged from $121 to $315 per ton of feedstock[.]" An ultrafine particle concentrator raised that to 17,500 ppm, a ratio of 53:1. "The REEs contained in mixed-phased par- ticles, also known as middlings, from the three coal seams were found to be effectively recovered by leaching using nitric acid at pH zero under atmospher- ic pressure and a solution temperature of 75°C," the group reported. A recovery rate of 80% was reported "for middlings from the Fire Clay coal seam." The group

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