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WVU engineers working on rare earth element supply method

The date of: 2019-09-16
viewed: 1

source:WV News

MORGANTOWN — The development of a steady domestic supply of crucial rare-earth elements has been in the works for some time, and mining engineers at West Virginia University are among those working toward that goal.

Scandium, yttrium, lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium and lutetium are the 17 REEs. These elements play a vital role in technologies ranging from green energy and consumer electronics to missile defense systems and aerospace applications.

However, an ongoing issue with these elements is that the global supply comes from just one source. This could mean supply disruptions at a time when demand for rare-earth elements is only going up.

“Rare earth elements are critical to the high-tech industry and to national defense, but we heavily rely on China to supply these elements,” said Qingqing Huang, an assistant professor of mining engineering. “Right now, we have an urgent need to develop our own supply chain in the country.”

Huang said China supplies more than 80% of REE global consumption while possessing about 37% of worldwide reserves. Thus, the U.S. Department of Energy is investing millions of dollars in projects to develop a domestic source from coal and coal refuse in order to stave off any potential disruption.

Such a project has been ongoing for years between WVU and the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) just outside Morgantown. The two entities worked together to open the Rare Earth Element Extraction Facility on the Evansdale Campus to research the retrieval of REEs from coal sludge.

Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, said one of the ongoing challenges of REE extraction from coal is getting high enough concentrations to be worth the effort. If that can be achieved, a whole new industry could emerge that cleans up the environment while retrieving these vital elements.

Huang said improvements are being made to bring this concept closer to fruition.

“We have been successful in the lab producing highly enriched rare-earth products. Now we are moving to scale up that testing,” she said. “This is exciting because it is something that has not been done in the past and will provide a critical domestic source of rare-earth elements if successful.”

To keep the momentum going, Huang was awarded the 2019 Freeport-McMoRan Inc. Career Development Grant by the Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration to support her research.

Recipients are chosen from all non-tenured faculty members in the mining and mineral processing/extractive metallurgy field in the U.S. This program was implemented to combat long-term challenges that threaten these U.S. academic degree programs, as well as the looming faculty deficiencies associated with retirement over the next two decades.

Huang plans to expand her research team and purchase new equipment to advance the projects with the financial support. She will receive $300,000 over the course of three years to better participate in research activities which are necessary to achieve tenure.

“The SME Career Award is the most prestigious national recognition of junior faculty in mining, mineral processing and extractive metallurgy,” said Vladislav Kecojevic, Robert E. Murray chair and professor of mining engineering.

“Qingqing is an inspiring teacher and scholar conducting outstanding research in an exciting field. Her cutting edge research is not only highly relevant, but also critical to a sustainable development of our mineral resources for the benefits of our communities, environment, economy and national security.”

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