Guest Contributor Andrew Braddock, Washington State University
Rare earth elements (REE) comprise 17 elements from the periodic table, and provide significant value to technology, national security, and economic growth. These elements are used in cell phones, hybrid engines, lasers, and medical devices just to name a few. There is a high demand for these elements because so much modern technology relies on them, but they are expensive because they are so rare. They are no longer mined in the U.S., however we imported 120 million dollars’ worth in 2016.
It is clear the importance and value placed on rare earth elements, but the current difficulties and high expenses associated with their extraction has left the U.S. dependent on foreign powers. In fact, China controls approximately 98% of the world market for these critical minerals. At the 2018 CleanTech Innovation Showcase, Jinichiro Nakano, Ph.D. gave a presentation about a response to this challenge under development at the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL).
NETL has made significant progress in developing a supply of rare earth elements from coal and coal by-products. Because of the vast coal resources existing in the U.S., there are currently untapped quantities of rare earth metals that have yet to be utilized. The goal at NETL is to recover rare earth elements in a way that is environmentally friendly from existing coal and coal-based materials. Their current extraction technology involves taking coal slag (waste), heating it to molten slag, and then subjecting it to controlled cooling which separates the rare earth elements from the slag.
By utilizing existing resources to extract rare earth elements domestically, the U.S. can maintain the economic upside of using rare and important materials, while also reducing its dependence on foreign imports.
For more Showcase recaps, click here.