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Mining People Magazine

The Rush for Rare

by Debra McCown Thomas

The pilot plant facility that the

University of Kentucky researchers

are using to recover the rare earth

elements from coal refuse with the

help of DOE funding.

sources associated with coal: coal refuse, coal ash, and acid

mine drainage. That’s because these sources have a relatively

high concentration of REEs that are critically important, low in

supply, and increasing in demand.

Based on an assessment conducted by the U.S. Department

of Energy and the National Energy Technology Laboratory,

the amount of REEs that could be recovered from coal-based

sources is substantial. The practical meaning of that, of course,

depends on what it takes to recover them and the cost to do so

relative to the price of the recovered material – but the research

is very encouraging.

Since the effort began in earnest in 2014, important milestones

have been reached at the University

of Kentucky, West Virginia University,

and others in developing and proving

ways to process coal-based materials

for REEs.

All three areas being looked at – acid

mine drainage, coal refuse, and coal ash

– could be promising domestic sources

of rare earth elements, says Paul



, director of West

Virginia University’s Water Research

he term “Rare Earth Elements” is somewhat of a

misnomer. These elements – a group of 17 metals that

are commonly used in producing electronics – aren’t

actually all that rare.

“They’re in your backyard. If you dig

it up and analyze your soil, you have

rare earths there,” says Rick Honaker


, professor in the University

of Kentucky’s mining engineering

department and principal investigator

there for research on recovering REEs

from coal refuse. “When you play in

the sand in Florida, you are playing

with rare earths because there are rare

earths in that sand.”

The reason they’re called rare earths, Honaker says, is that it’s

rare to find deposits that are economic to mine and process into

usable form. As a result, the rising demand for these materials

– which are critical for making things like electric cars, wind

turbines, consumer electronics, and weapons systems – means

people are looking for new sources of rare earth elements that

can be processed economically.

In the US, a major piece of that effort is looking at potential REE