LEXINGTON, Ky. (Aug. 24, 2017) — The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has selected a pilot-scale project led by University of Kentucky Professor of Mining Engineering Rick Honaker to move on to a second phase of research in an effort to recover rare earth elements (REE) from coal and coal byproducts. DOE will invest $6 million in Honaker’s project and project partners will contribute an additional $1.5 million over 2½ years for a total of $7.5 million.
REEs are a series of 17 chemical elements found in the Earth’s crust. Due to their unique chemical properties, REEs are essential components of technologies spanning a range of applications, including electronics, computer and communication systems, transportation, health care and national defense. The demand for REEs has grown significantly in recent years, stimulating an interest in economically feasible approaches for domestic REE recovery.
The first phase of Honaker’s project involved conducting laboratory testing and preparing their technical design for a pilot plant to produce salable REEs. Their design included recovery and sale of dry, fine, high-quality coal out of by-products from two Kentucky coal preparation (coal washing) plants as an additional source of revenue.
This second phase will use two sources of coal washing byproducts as feedstock for recovery of REEs. The team will also recover dry, fine coal from the feedstock material. The first location for installation and testing of the pilot plant will be at a coal preparation plant in Perry County, Kentucky, that processes Central Appalachian bituminous coal. The second location for testing of the pilot plant will be at a coal preparation plant that processes Illinois Basin bituminous coal near Nebo, Kentucky.
Professor Jack Groppo and Assistant Professor Josh Werner, both from the Department of Mining Engineering, are co-PIs on the project. In addition, the Kentucky Geological Survey is providing an important service to the project. External to UK, Virginia Tech (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University) will supply expertise in advanced separation systems and coal producers Alliance Coal and Blackhawk Mining will provide the facilities and support required to operate the pilot-scale REE recovery plant.
“We are excited to be selected for a Phase 2 award which will allow us to move forward with developing and testing our process circuitry in continuous mode at two Kentucky operating preparation plants,” Honaker said. “In Phase 1, we were able to produce concentrates containing over 50 percent total rare earth elements from Kentucky coal sources which included a significant amount of critical elements like neodymium and yttrium. Successful completion of Phase 2 work will substantially advance the process toward commercialization and providing significant economic value to coal operations and serving a critical need for the nation in the supply of critical REEs.”