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Rare Earth Elements Could Be Extracted From Coal Waste in West Virginia

The date of: 2023-08-29
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Researchers in Appalachia’s coal country are exploring the possibility of transforming toxic waste into valuable resources. Abandoned coal mines have left behind pollution that contains a surplus of rare earth elements. These elements are crucial for manufacturing electronics, electric vehicles, lighting, and lasers. As the demand for rare earths continues to rise globally, with China currently dominating the market, there is a growing interest in finding alternative sources, such as increasing recycling efforts.
Extracting rare earths from coal waste not only offers the opportunity to obtain valuable metals but also helps to mitigate pollution. Even after a coal mine shuts down, it leaves behind a legacy of environmental degradation. When the leftover mining debris comes into contact with air and water, sulphuric acid is formed, which then leaches heavy metals from the rocks. This acidic mixture can contaminate waterways and harm wildlife.
While recovering rare earths from acid mine drainage might not fully satisfy the increasing demand for these metals, Paul Ziemkiewicz, the director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, acknowledges several advantages. The drainage is enriched with the most sought-after rare earth elements, unlike traditional rare earth mines. Furthermore, this extraction process does not generate the radioactive waste typically associated with rare earth mining, which often includes uranium and thorium alongside the rare earths. Moreover, the existing infrastructure for treating acid mine drainage can be repurposed to collect the rare earths for processing. According to Ziemkiewicz, production could potentially begin immediately if the necessary steps were taken.
Ziemkiewicz and his colleagues estimate that nearly 600 metric tons of rare earth elements, along with cobalt, another highly sought-after metal, could be produced annually from the hundreds of sites already treating acid mine drainage.
At present, a pilot project in West Virginia is underway. The project involves extracting and concentrating rare earths from material recovered at an acid mine drainage treatment site. If this scheme proves to be feasible, Ziemkiewicz envisions a future where cleanup sites send their rare earth findings to a central processing facility to be separated into individual elements. Although economic analyses suggest that this venture may not yield substantial profits, Ziemkiewicz believes that it could at least cover the costs of treating the acid mine drainage.

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