Can rare earths turn old coal mines into gold mines supplying smartphone makers?




HAZLE TOWNSHIP — Down in the open pit mine, U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry trudged to the top of a loose pile of dirt to peer into a void that has given up its anthracite coal for the last hundred years.

First, his guide told him, the hard coal here was pulled from an underground mine, then a surface mine. Now it is recovered with the use of a mammoth dragline excavator, which sat idle last week like a ship stranded on the black bed of an empty sea.

The secretary took out his smartphone and panned across the scene, inadvertently demonstrating in a single gesture why he’d made the bumpy trip down into this gash in the ground in northeast Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County.

The rare earth elements that make an iPhone display vivid and colorful, that guide the paths of precision missiles, form the magnets in MRIs and power the rechargeable batteries in electric cars are contained in relative abundance in the waste rock that is plowed through and piled up on the way to mining Appalachian coal.

If research to extract the valuable bits from the spoil can be expanded to commercial scale, the hope is that byproducts and waste associated with coal could provide a reliable domestic source of the crucial 17 elements in the lower left corner of the periodic table. Those are now supplied, almost exclusively, from China.

Such a move could also open new markets for coal companies — including anthracite coal companies, which last played a central role in powering the nation’s most important machines in World War II.

The prospect is enough to make coal boosters mix their minerals. “We are finding that we sit on what is really a gold mine right here,” said U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, a Republican from nearby Hazleton.

Pilot plant in Luzerne County 

This summer, the Department of Energy awarded more than $20 million in grants for projects to extract, separate and concentrate rare earth elements from coal-associated materials — including a $1 million grant to a consortium involving three companies and Penn State University to develop a pilot plant at the Luzerne County site owned by Jeddo Coal Co., which calls itself the “aristocrat of anthracite.”

The outside projects — along with in-house research at the department’s National Energy Technology Laboratory — are evaluating an array of possible coal sources for rare earths across Appalachia and western states. Those include fly ash from power plants, byproducts from coal-washing facilities, waste rock above and below coal seams, and sludge from acid mine drainage.

“It is a very broad portfolio right now,” said Mary Anne Alvin, technology manager for the rare earths program at the laboratory, which has locations in South Park and in Morgantown, W.Va.

Across materials and methods, the research has the same goal: to find economical, environmentally benign ways to extract dispersed rare earths from the coal-related substances they are bound to, then concentrate them until they reach the purity needed for market.

The focus is on validating the possibility of getting to between 90 and 99 percent purity on a prototype-scale by 2020, Ms. Alvin said.

“Technically, we believe it’s feasible. We have to do the economics to really demonstrate that these rare earths, as they are generated, are market competitive.”

Generally, coal wastes are more promising sources of rare earths than coal itself, which means material of extraordinary value might come from what would otherwise be a costly mess.

“We’re not breaking ground to go and get this stuff,” said Dan McGroarty, an advisory board member for Texas Mineral Resources Corp., one of three companies partnering with Penn State on the Department of Energy grant that will design the pilot plant at the Luzerne County site.

“We’re basically saying, can we go through your garbage and see if there’s anything interesting in there? It turns out, there is.”

The rock above 

The National Energy Technology Laboratory program began in 2014 with prospecting, the first of its three phases.

Researchers picked through rock piles and reviewed archived core samples to determine the best locations for individual and total rare earth elements.

Which is how Jeddo Coal’s discarded and unmined overburden — the rock above the roof of the coal seam — was identified as a rich source of rare earths generally and scandium in particular in a pit that was first mined in the early 1900s.

The price and demand for each of the rare earths is “wildly different,” Mr. McGroarty said. “Some are $2 a kilogram. One is $4,000 a kilogram.”

Scandium is the dearest one.

The team plans to take more samples to identify the best spots on the Jeddo Coal property. Then it will adapt a technique — developed by Department of Energy and Penn State researchers — for cost-effectively extracting rare earths from coal overburden using solvents that are much less caustic than those commonly used in China.

“What we did was at a very small scale before,” said Sarma Pisupati, Penn State energy and mineral engineering professor. “Now, we are actually going to a larger scale so we can commercially look at this.”

The rare earths will also have to be separated from one another, since each has different uses and markets.

The project could be financially viable based on scandium alone, Mr. McGroarty said. Texas Mineral Resources said in December that processing “a modest 250 tons per day” of scandium-containing sand and siltstones associated with the coal at the site would “potentially result in an annual pre-tax cash flow of approximately $17 million,” after royalty payments to Jeddo.

Scandium is used in high-intensity lighting and improves strength and corrosion-resistance in alloys with other metals. Its properties make it valuable for aircraft, spacecraft and weapons, but its sourcing is too precarious right now for it to be widely adopted.

“If you get the scandium out and get paid for it, you can fool around all day and get the other secondary rare earths out,” Mr. McGroarty said. “Some of those are $400 a kilogram, so it’s still worth it.”

Surviving the downturns 

For Jeddo Coal, a successful rare earths project would supplement its primary operations: reclaiming coal refuse piles to recover fuel for waste coal power plants, and reworking old mines to produce anthracite for home heating, water filtration, steel making and other metal industry applications.

“This would be an opportunity for us to create another revenue stream that would help our company survive these economic downturns,” James Pagnotti, Jeddo Coal’s president, said.

Anthracite makes up a sliver of U.S. coal production. In 2015, just 0.2 percent of the nation’s coal production was anthracite, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Forty-five percent was bituminous, the kind of soft coal mined in Western Pennsylvania and favored by power plants.

Despite abundant untapped supplies, Pennsylvania anthracite production declined 16 percent in 2015 from a recent peak three years earlier.

During the tour last week, Mr. Pagnotti was careful to temper some of his visitors’ most optimistic talk about rare earths reviving the coal industry.

Behind him someone yelled, “Party in the bucket” to gather everyone for a group picture in the dragline’s 85-cubic-yard scoop, equipment that wasn’t running because of poor market conditions.

“We’re not there yet,” he said. “We’re hoping.”

Laura Legere: llegere@post-gazette.com.

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