UW SER Publishes Study on Domestic Critical Mineral Production From Coal Byproducts

January 26, 2022
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Davin Bagdonas

Researchers in the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources (SER) have published a collaborative study on the potential for domestic critical mineral (CM) and rare earth element (REE) production from unconventional sources in the United States.

Recently released in the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews journal, the study provides a geologic assessment of CM and REE occurrences in coal fly ash sourced from the Powder River Basin, as well as a complementary economic and policy analysis that explores a viable way to produce more of these critical minerals domestically from coal byproducts.

The results of the study show that coal fly ash created from the combustion of Powder River Basin coal holds promise as an economic source of REEs.

“We have really important work going on in SER and across UW through some key collaborations,” says SER’s Davin Bagdonas, the lead author on the study. “In addition to the assessment we conducted, we worked with SER’s Center for Energy Regulation and Policy Analysis for policy support, with the University of Wyoming Department of Economics, and partners at Colorado School of Mines and Idaho National Laboratory to assess the market viability for REE recovery from unconventional ore stocks. This study is very important because it highlights how necessary those three aspects are for successful project development in the future.”

Bagdonas is an associate research scientist in SER’s Center for Economic Geology Research (CEGR), which investigates opportunities that use Wyoming’s distinctive geology and resources, and develops those prospects to diversify Wyoming’s economy.

“This highly anticipated article will serve as a very significant resource in a nationwide discussion,” says CEGR Director Fred McLaughlin. “Led by the Department of Energy, the U.S. has been investigating ways to reduce its reliance on REE imports, and to look at current waste products is environmentally astute. I’m very proud of our team for their efforts in providing an in-depth examination on a very timely and important topic.”

Previous assessments conducted by CEGR on unconventional REE sources have included coal byproducts, produced water, phosphates, uranium and coal beds. Additionally, researchers in the center have led a survey of heavy metal critical elements in Wyoming.

While the focus of the published study was specifically on coal ash from the Powder River Basin, what has set it apart from past assessments is the emphasis on the promising economics supported by a regulatory framework. As Bagdonas notes, both economic and geologic assessments are rendered useless unless there is policy to support them.

“We have conducted a lot of rare earth assessments, and research partners have looked at economics on their own but, until we can actually use those assessments for something, the research won’t go anywhere,” he says. “By addressing the policy surrounding it, we are taking the first step to find out if what we have discovered is practical and worthwhile.”

“The policy environment at both the federal and state levels is uniquely aligned to support continued applied research, including commercial investigations, centered on REEs from Powder River Basin coal,” says Kipp Coddington, SER senior adviser and a contributing author of the study. “Understanding the economics of all of this is critically important. With the right policy mechanisms and business models in place, the state of Wyoming could play an important role in advancing these critically needed resources for the United States in the decades ahead. Doing so would ensure continued economic use of Powder River Basin coal, thereby benefiting both federal taxpayers and the citizens of Wyoming.”

The focus on Wyoming’s vast coal resources comes at a time when there is significant investigation of its potential for nonthermal uses.

In April 2021, SER received two Department of Energy awards under the “Carbon Ore, Rare Earth and Critical Minerals (CORE-CM) Initiative for U.S. Basins.” The ultimate goals of the projects are to catalyze regional economic growth and job creation by realizing the full potential value of natural resources, and to bolster U.S. supply chains for materials important to clean energy and national security.

Bagdonas serves alongside CEGR Senior Research Scientist Erin Phillips as a principal investigator on the two-year CORE-CM initiatives. Bagdonas is leading the efforts in the Greater Green River Basin and Wind River Basin, while Phillips is managing the project in the Powder River Basin.

“The Powder River Basin is already home to a robust energy infrastructure and a highly skilled mining and technology workforce,” Phillips says. “This assessment is helpful because it specifically focuses on the possibility of REE extraction from coal byproducts in the basin. Looking toward the future, this assessment will help to guide efforts to diversify the uses of Powder River Basin coal and coal byproducts.”

For more information, email Bagdonas at abags@uwyo.edu.

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