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With DOE Grant, UW to Study Retrieval of Rare Earth Elements from Coal Ash

December 22, 2015
man sitting in front of computer screen
A research team led by Maohong Fan, UW School of Energy Resources professor in the College of Engineering and Applied Science’s Chemical and Petroleum Engineering departments, aims to recover rare earth elements from the ash of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin coal. (UW Photo)

University of Wyoming researchers have received a $600,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to develop a way to recover rare earth elements from the ash of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin coal.

UW’s research project is one of 10 from around the country selected to receive funding from DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory to support the lab’s program on recovering rare earth elements from coal and coal byproducts.

“The overall objective of the new DOE project is to create a pollution-free and cost-effective technology for recovering high-value rare earth elements from coal and coal ash,” says the UW project leader, Maohong Fan, UW School of Energy Resources (SER) professor in the College of Engineering and Applied Science’s Chemical and Petroleum Engineering departments. “We want to make coal a very valuable resource for engineering a variety of much more treasured carbon, hydrogen, metal-based and other products. In other words, the values of all the elements in coal and coal ash can be significantly elevated with new technologies.”

Rare earth elements are a series of chemical elements found in Earth’s crust. Due to their unique chemical properties, they have become essential components of many technologies spanning a range of applications including electronics, computer and communication systems, transportation, health care and national defense. The demand and cost of rare earth elements have grown significantly over recent years, stimulating an emphasis on economically feasible approaches for their recovery.

The potential to recover rare earth elements from coal is significant for Wyoming, the nation’s No. 1 coal producer. SER Director Mark Northam says the new project is just the latest in UW’s efforts to create new markets for coal through carbon engineering -- creating value-added products with a minimal or even negative carbon footprint.

“While we continue our work to make traditional uses of coal cleaner and more efficient, through carbon capture and storage and other technologies, it’s clear that the conventional concept of burning coal for energy production is changing globally,” Northam says. “UW is a leading institution in the U.S. in converting coal to highly marketable and near-zero-carbon-footprint materials due to the state’s strong support and the efforts of our faculty and students.”

UW’s project aims to design, develop and test a three-step, bench-scale extraction process that will use carbon dioxide and ferric chloride under supercritical conditions to recover rare earth elements from Powder River Basin post-combustion coal ash. It will include sampling and characterization of coal ash to identify suitable material for recovery of rare earth elements; a techno-economic feasibility study; and a system design for the proposed recovery technology.

“This research is a great example of research envisioned in Wyoming’s Tier-1 Engineering Initiative,” says Michael Pishko, dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Science. “Our researchers are among the world’s leaders in developing new technologies that will benefit Wyoming’s economy and provide solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges.”

DOE plans to select up to four of the 10 projects to advance to a second phase, which will involve development and testing of the project-specific technologies. Successful execution of these Phase 2 projects will lead to the development and application of technology for economically recovering rare earth elements from domestic coal and coal byproducts.


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Chad Baldwin

Institutional Communications

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Email: cbaldwin@uwyo.edu

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