The panic set in around 2010. The trigger words: China, monopoly, national security, iPhones.
Yes, iPhones, whose signature features — the sleek display, their sound quality — draw their properties from rare earth elements, a 15-chunk block of lanthanides at the base of the periodic table, plus the metals scandium and yttrium. By 2010, China had cornered nearly 95 percent of the world’s production of rare earths and had begun to choke exports, which caused prices to skyrocket.
Bills were introduced in Congress to fast track permits for rare earth mines in the United States. Politicians warned of a national security disaster, and the Department of Defense, which needs rare earth elements for applications ranging from lasers to weapons, sounded the alarm.
Back in his lab at the University of Kentucky, Jim Hower, a geologist, started to see a wave of interest in his research like never before. Mr. Hower has been sampling slabs of Appalachian coal and its waste products and cataloging their rare earth element concentrations for years. He was doing it when Kentucky and West Virginia coal towns boomed with activity “where we used to be dodging trucks,” and he’s still doing it today when “it’s a ghost town,” he said.
Central Appalachian coal — mined in parts of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee and once prized for its low sulfur content and is now the most difficult and least economic to mine — also holds the most rare earth element “hot spots” in the country, according to research compiled by Ohio-based Leonardo Technologies for the federal government.
Rare earth element concentrations in these hot spots are more than 1,000 parts per million, measured when coal is burned, compared with about 200 parts per million in regular rock. Coal ash from power plants, as sampled by Mr. Hower, has 10 times the concentration of rare earths as the original coal.
A turning point
The China export embargo wasn’t the first time researchers in the field wondered if it might make economic sense to extract rare earth elements from coal and coal waste. But it was a kind of turning point for government interest.
Mr. Hower and researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey, who have done a lot of the cataloging of coal characteristics across the country, started to see money coming from the Department of Energy.
Commercial interest materialized as well, but didn’t make it far. A Colorado company, Nuemann Systems Corp., touted a breakthrough process to extract rare earths from coal ash and said it would spin out a company to commercialize it in 2012, but then the effort went quiet.
PSI Corp., based in Massachusetts, won a small business innovation grant to prove a low-cost recovery technology.
Now, the National Energy Technology Laboratory wants to bring much of that work under one roof — at least in name — as it launches a research and development program to commercialize economic technology that extracts rare earths from coal and coal waste.
The rare earth potential has everyone at NETL buzzing, said the lab’s director Grace Bochenek.
“It’s high risk and high payoff, and, if we’re able to do it, wow,” she said. “If you’re successful, you can have a whole new industry.”
Not so rare
Rare earth elements are actually quite ubiquitous in the earth’s crust, but typically are present in minute quantities and require processing a large amount of host material to extract a meaningful amount.
These lightweight and very strong elements are used as catalysts, metal alloys and magnets and are crucial for clean energy technologies such as electric car batteries, solar panels and wind turbines.
The U.S. was the dominant producer of rare earth elements until the 1990s when China began to ramp up production, all of it coming directly from mines. By 2002, the only American mine that produced rare earths had closed, partly due to environmental concerns. It took nearly a decade for production at the Mountain Pass, Calif., mine to restart. Last month, its owner, MolyCorp. filed for bankruptcy after several years of losses on falling rare earth prices.
Even so, MolyCorp. made a huge dent in America’s dependence on imports, decreasing it from 100 percent in 2010 to 59 percent last year. More than a handful of other mines are in development across the U.S.
Like all extractive industries, the rare earth commercial equation has two variables and a constant: the market value of the material, the cost to get it to market, and how much of it there is, respectively.
James Ekmann, an engineer with Leonardo Technologies who works as a contractor for NETL, was asked by the agency to quantify the commercial opportunity for rare earths.
“Looking at it the way we did was an attempt to say, ‘Is there really enough there to have a source for 20 to 30 years?”
If coal ash were the source, the answer is a definitive yes.
If U.S. coal mines were still churning out the same amount of coal as in 2010, there could have been at least 40,000 tons or rare earths extracted from the unearthed rock. That’s more than twice what the U.S. consumes each year.
Whether it can be done economically is another question.
Rare earth research
NETL plans to dole out about $20 million to research teams to answer that. Its request for project proposals for the research and development program expires at the end of August, and the agency will announce the winners in October.
Mr. Hower is applying, in partnership with a coal producer that is one of the more progressive companies in the industry, he said.
“They are recognizing that they have to be as nimble as possible and seek out any additional markets from what might have been a waste material,” he said.
Two Carnegie Mellon University scientists also are taking a shot at the money.
Athanasios Karamalidis, an associate research professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Clinton Noack, his doctoral student, say they’ve developed a way to extract nearly 100 percent of rare earth materials from a liquid source and have filed for several patents for their technique.
The duo got the idea while working on another NETL project that explored using rare earths as natural tracers in Marcellus Shale brine and methane. During that process, the researchers found that produced waters contain concentrated amounts of rare earth elements.
“The method that we developed probably is scalable but we don't have enough data to say certainly how it would be applied,” Mr. Karamalidis said.
For NETL’s R&D program, however, the focus will be on coal.
Unlike other elements such as mercury, which is emitted when coal is burned, rare earths stay with the ash and further concentrate.
“So by generating electricity, we’re also enriching,” said Allan Kolker, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
It’s a “very, very old idea,” he said, tracing it to the 1930s.
“Right now we have a unique set of economic circumstances where rare earths are needed in so many modern devices that didn’t exist in the 1930s,” he said. “And also you have one source that has a strong control on the market. That combination of things is unique to now.”
“If someone can come up with a patentable process that’s effective, there’s a lot of money to be made,” he said.
Anya Litvak: email@example.com or 412-263-1455.