Coal Age

MAR 2019

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March 2019 33 rare earths continued In summer 2017, the team was se- lected for the next phase and was al- lotted $6 million by the DOE program. The companies involved planned to contribute an additional $1.5 mil- lion. The goal was to open a mobile pilot-scale plant at a site in Webster County, Kentucky. Construction be- gan the following spring. In late 2018, the team reported the plant was operational. Initially, it ran eight hours, and produced about 10 grams of concentrate per day. The team reported it intended to build a full-size processing plant in Hazard, Kentucky, with a deadline of sometime in 2020. Honaker said the pilot plant proves that the process is technically feasible. "We can produce high-grade rare earth mixes here and we are also working at producing a high-grade scandium product," he said. "Scandium naturally comes out as a separate concentrate, so it is very easy to produce an upward of about a 60% grade scandium prod- uct. We are very confident we can take that up to the 99% requirement." That confidence and success is echoed at a project co-run by Texas Mineral Resources (TMR), a project that is part of the same DOE program. TMR reported trials reveal its patented ion exchange process, based on the one used to separate uranium for the Man- hattan project, has proven successful at extracting REEs from coal overburden. "We have been able to separate a liquid solution into its respective components," Anthony Marchese, chairman, TMR, said. Details, he said, could not be released until after the company had finalized and sub- mitted a report on the results from lab-scale tests of its continuous ion exchange, continuous ion chroma- tography-based process to the DOE. Marchese said he was confident the results bode well for the future of the process as a possible market- able solution for REE concentrate ex- traction. "The answer is yes," he said. "These projects that are bankrolled by the federal government will serve to give some confidence to the capital markets that there is hope." That statement encapsulates a belief about the true intent of the DOE program. "In my opinion, this is all about the separation technolo- gies," he said. "It is not about REEs." Jim Kennedy, globetrotting consul- tant, columnist, author of a succinct white paper on the Molycorp Moun- tain Pass REE mine scandal, and the subject of the heralded book, Sellout: How Washington Gave Away Ameri- ca's Technological Soul, and One Man's Fight to Bring it Home, half agreed. "This is about research dollars," Kennedy said. "The DOE is a govern- ment-sponsored money-laundering service," he said. "Where are you go- ing to send the concentrates to make an oxide?" The question is not multiple choice. The answer can only be China, he said. By producing REE concentrates from coal, "the United States becomes a re- source supplier to the high-tech econ- omy of China," Kennedy said. "That is our accomplishment with coal: We be- came China's bitch, again." That is, only if developing a tech- nically marketable solution capable of extracting REEs from coal is really pos- sible, of which Kennedy isn't convinced. He pointed to two major challenges, ac- tinides and grade, that bode poorly for the future of such possible solutions. First, REEs typically are bound to actinides, radioactive elements. "In al- most every case, all of these resources also have thorium and uranium mixed in, sometimes at higher ratios," Ken- nedy said. "What happens is you get a couple grams of REEs and you get a couple of grams of thorium." Thorium, he said, is regulated as if it were plutoni- um or uranium. "That makes it unfeasi- ble," Kennedy said. "You have to store it, and you have all those costs and you have the licensing requirements and compliance issues. There is no way coal miners are going to go for that." Stored for a set timeframe, thorium gets recategorized by the government, Kennedy said. "After it sits for a certain amount of time, they'll come to you and say, you know what, that's not nu- clear fuel, that's nuclear waste, so man- age it as nuclear waste," he said. Which is why all the mining companies that used to supply REEs as a byproduct ultimately ended up burying the con- centrates. "The thorium liability issue associated with it exceeded the value of their core business," Kennedy said. The actinides issue surfaced re- cently in international mining news covering Westfarmers's bid to take over Lynas Corp. to the tune of roughly $1.1 A University of Kentucky mining engineering student monitors the progress of the cleaner separators at the pilot plant in Webster County, Kentucky. (Photo: UK)

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