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Rare Earth Elements Project Receives Federal Funding

June 23, 2020

The potential development of a new industry to extract rare earth elements from the ash of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin coal has taken a step forward with a federal grant through the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

The grant is part of DOE’s Technology Commercialization Fund, which was created to promote DOE national laboratories’ promising energy technology and expand the agency’s efforts to foster commercial impacts developed from DOE research. The project will facilitate the expansion of technologies and methods for rare earth element extraction from coal ash that have been developed by researchers at the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL).

The $1.62 million, three-year project involves NETL, the University of Wyoming School of Energy Resources (SER), Campbell County, the city of Gillette and Energy Capital Economic Development. The project will create a pilot-scale production facility at the Advanced Carbon Products Innovation Center, now under development in Gillette, to demonstrate the economically viable production of rare earth elements from coal-related feedstocks.

“This will help us understand the commercial potential of rare earth element extraction from Wyoming coal and coal ash,” says Scott Quillinan, director of SER’s Center for Economic Geology Research (CEGR). “It also demonstrates the commitment and partnership that UW SER and CEGR have with Wyoming communities.”

“We are very excited that the Department of Energy has awarded the rare earth elements project this grant. Gillette and Campbell County have always benefited from the power of partnerships, and this project is another shining example,” Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King says. “We always knew this was the perfect site, and it is gratifying to know that others recognize the potential of the Powder River Basin to assist our nation.”

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. Studies have shown that Powder River Basin coal ash has high extractable rare earth element content compared to other coal ash, likely due to the calcium content in the coal. CEGR has conducted several studies characterizing the geochemical data of coal ash and examining how composition relates to the composition of the coal combusted in power plants. This work has led to identification of specific coal ash stocks available in high volumes -- 270 to 690 tons per day for a single power station -- that exhibit elevated rare earth elements content along with other critical materials of interest to DOE.

“This project is based on many years of work to characterize the concentration of rare earth elements in Wyoming coal ash,” says Davin Bagdonas, UW principal investigator on the project and CEGR research scientist.

The new DOE-funded project aims to identify the most promising feedstocks in the Powder River Basin for the extraction of rare earth elements and critical metals; perform extraction experiments to demonstrate the efficacy of extracting those elements and metals in an economic manner; and lift NETL extraction technologies to a pilot scale for deployment in Campbell County. The demonstration facility will be constructed and operated during the third year of the project.

“We are delighted to have NETL and UW as partners in building and diversifying Wyoming’s and Campbell County’s economy,” Campbell County Commissioner Rusty Bell says. “This project will help strengthen our nation’s ability to supply our own rare earth elements, and Campbell County is proud to be a part of this project.”

In addition to the $810,568 from the DOE’s Technology Commercialization Fund, cost-share contributions are being made by SER, $375,568; Campbell County, $187,500; the city of Gillette, $187,500; and Energy Capital Economic Development, $60,000.

“Recognizing that domestic sources of rare earths could ultimately be an economic development opportunity for Wyoming and also provide national security benefits, I couldn’t be more excited about this project,” SER Executive Director Holly Krutka says. “A special thanks goes to the CEGR team, Campbell County, the city of Gillette, Energy Capital Economic Development and NETL for putting forth this successful proposal.”

“This project is an important step forward in diversifying and expanding Wyoming’s economy through value-added coal projects,” says Phil Christopherson, CEO of Energy Capital Economic Development. “We are very proud to host the NETL rare earth elements project at our Advanced Carbon Products Innovation Center.”

Funding for this project was among $33 million announced recently for 82 projects supported by the DOE’s Technology Commercialization Fund. The private sector is contributing over $36 million in matching funds. These projects will advance the commercialization of promising energy technologies and strengthen partnerships between DOE’s national laboratories and private-sector companies to deploy these technologies to the marketplace.

The Technology Commercialization Fund, created by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, promotes promising energy technologies by supporting entrepreneurs’ efforts to engage with the DOE national laboratory complex. DOE received over 220 applications for 2020 funding, with project teams engaging more than 130 different partners across multiple diverse disciplines.

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