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UW, INL Researchers Study Pulling Rare Earth Elements from Industrial Waters

June 3, 2016
woman working with lab equipment with a computer display in the background
UW student Savannah Bachman works in the laboratory of civil engineering Associate Professor Jonathan Brant, exploring the potential retrieval of rare earth elements from water produced in oil and gas production. (UW Photo)

University of Wyoming researchers have joined colleagues from the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to study the potential for retrieving rare earth elements from water produced in oil and gas production and geothermal projects.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently announced that the UW/INL/USGS research project is one of four selected to receive up to $4 million to assess the occurrence of rare earth minerals and other critical materials that may be dissolved in high-temperature fluids associated with energy extraction.

“By validating methods for recovering and purifying critical materials, the economic and production benefits of geothermal energy projects can be improved, making them more cost-competitive at a wider range of locations,” a DOE media release says. “These valuable minerals could be found in elevated temperature fluids produced by oil, gas or mining operations.”

The UW/INL/USGS project aims to develop a database of rare earth elements and trace metals from oil- and gas-produced waters from some of the nation’s most prolific hydrocarbon basins; identify similar oil and gas reservoirs; and create a mathematical screening tool to test national geochemical databases.

Rare earth elements are a series of chemical elements found in Earth’s crust and dissolved in water. 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.

“This is a big award that really supports the importance of these regional associations -- in particular, UW’s with INL,” says Don Roth, UW professor emeritus and associate director of the Center for Advanced Energy Studies (CAES). “It wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.”

CAES is an energy research consortium whose members are UW, INL, the University of Idaho, Idaho State University and Boise State University.

“Awards such as this have two-fold importance,” says Bill Gern, UW’s vice president for research and economic development. “First, it continues to develop and deepen our relationship with the Center for Advanced Energy Studies, its member institutions in Idaho and with the Idaho National Laboratory. Second, if the research demonstrates recovery of strategic critical elements from produced water is feasible economically, it will help commoditize this by-product of oil and gas development, supporting how produced water is handled in the future.”

In addition to the federal grant, the Wyoming Legislature has appropriated funding for research into rare earth elements.

Heading the research from UW are principal investigator Scott Quillinan and Fred McLaughlin of the Carbon Management Institute in the School of Energy Resources (SER); and Jonathan Brant, associate professor in the Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering. INL’s researchers are Travis McLing and Hari Neupane.

Quillinan notes that there is very little research regarding the character of rare earth elements in oil and gas produced waters. In the past, these waters were not evaluated for rare earths due to analytical complications related to high salinity.

He explains that the new research project stems from the Carbon Management Institute’s investigation of deep saline aquifers evaluated for carbon dioxide storage in southwest Wyoming. Using analytical methods developed by INL team members, the UW researchers demonstrated for the first time that it’s possible to accurately measure rare earth concentrations in highly saline fluids.

“Leveraging these results, we were able to secure additional support from the Wyoming Legislature, via SER, and build additional relationships through the CAES initiative to conduct an assessment of Wyoming reservoirs,” Quillinan says. “We now plan to expand the study in Wyoming to more reservoirs and outside of Wyoming by analyzing prolific oil- and gas-bearing formations from the USGS produced-water sample catalog.

“At the conclusion of this study, we will have a better understanding of the rare earth element character and processes of deep saline reservoirs across the U.S., and the technological research gaps that need to be addressed in order to harvest these products.”

In a separate study, UW researchers last year received a $600,000 grant from DOE to develop a way to recover rare earth elements from the ash of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin coal.

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