Coal Age

MAR 2019

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32 March 2019 rare earths Kentucky Pilot Plant Produces Rare Earths, Controversy Extracting rare earth elements from acid waste is proven to be technically feasible in DOE-funded projects, but raises bigger questions as to what the underlying mission is and should be by jesse morton, technical writer An ancient Chinese proverb reads, the man who says something cannot be done needs to get out of the way of the man doing it. When it comes to producing rare earth element (REE) concentrates from coal, the proof that it can be done is a mobile pilot plant now processing a quarter-ton per hour of acid-water-waste at a prep plant in western Kentucky. The pilot plant has been operating since last September. And the leader of the team that researched, designed, trialed, tested and perfected it, Profes- sor Rick Honaker, mining chair, Uni- versity of Kentucky, said a marketable process for economically extracting REE concentrates from the majority of coal materials found stateside is less than a half-decade away. "There are some situations where Mother Nature has provided some benefits in doing the expensive part of the process for you that could have economic potential today," Honaker said. "We have the circuitry needed us- ing off-the-shelf technology to be able to produce a concentrate that would be commercially salable," he said. "In terms of producing from the majority of coal materials, we are a little ways out, maybe a couple or three years." The story of the pilot plant, and others like it, shows the federal gov- ernment has an interest in the devel- opment of separation technologies and processes capable of extracting REEs. It also shows the tensions be- tween some of the players staking out roles in the growing movement to put the United States back in control of the supply chain of technologies crucial to the nation's economy and military. For example, the plant came about rapidly for a solution overseen by an academic institution. It was and is largely bankrolled by the federal government, but as government proj- ects go, it is super cheap. It is a major breakthrough and milestone, and is hailed as such by both the govern- ment and the universities involved. It is also rightly touted as symbolic of the patriotism of the private com- panies involved. To critics, though, who also claim patriotic motives, it is seen as a possible money laundering scheme and a means by which the Chinese will further their monopoly over the global REE value chain. The story starts in 2014, when Honaker first started talking to the federal government about research- ing the possibility of recovering REEs from coal and coal waste. In spring 2016, Honaker received a grant of roughly $1 million from the Feasibility of Recovering Rare Earth Elements Program, run by the Depart- ment of Energy (DOE) and the Nation- al Energy Technology Laboratory, to design and lab-scale test pilot plant technology believed capable of recov- ering REEs from acid waste. He led a team that included per- sonnel from Virginia Tech, West Vir- ginia University, Arch Coal, Black- hawk Mining, Bowie Refining, and Eriez Manufacturing and Minerals Refining Co. The prep plants where testing would occur were run by Alliance Coal and Blackhawk Min- ing. Virginia Tech was to provide the hydrophobic-hydrophilic separation system crucial to the process, which was expected to be patented. Roughly a year later, Honaker re- ported the tests revealed the team had produced concentrates contain- ing more than 50% REEs. Later that year, the media would report Honaker said it had produced a 98% pure REE concentrate. The main elements extracted were neodymium, yttrium and scandium. The pilot plant initially ran for eight hours, and produced 10 grams of concentrate, per day. (Photo: University of Kentucky [UK])

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