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Tapping into coal, US could become net exporter of rare earths – DOE official

The United States could eventually become a net exporter of the rare earth materials crucial to making an array of products, including many electronics, wind turbines, energy storage devices and electric vehicle batteries, a top official at the U.S. Energy Department said.

That is in part due to the potential to extract those materials from coal and coal-related materials, Grant Bromhal, acting director of the DOE's minerals sustainability division within the Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, told attendees of the 2021 National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners Summer Policy Summit. The United States depends heavily on China for imports of the group of 17 elements.

Bromhal said the office focuses on deriving rare earths and critical minerals from "unconventional and secondary sources," such as coal waste, coal byproducts, refuse ash and acid mine drainage. As the country transitions away from burning coal for power generation, such technologies could offer communities impacted by the energy transition other forms of employment.

"We're seeing some successes in the ability to take these materials that in many cases we thought of as waste or not useful materials, and we can find some valuable products in them," Bromhal said. "We're beginning to get them up to the kind of purity we need to move them forward in the supply chain."

There are 60 billion tons of bituminous coal refuse on the ground in the U.S. from previous mining activities that contain roughly four million tons of rare earth elements, Bromhal said. That would be enough rare earth material for two billion Tesla Inc. motors, the official added.

"Even if only 10% of that is really something that we can extract and take out and build into, that is still a substantial resource that can go into that recycle and reuse cycle," Bromhal said. "[It can] be done much more quickly than we can get it because of difficulty permitting, building an entirely new mine."

Dominion Energy Inc., a Virginia-headquartered power generator, is also paying attention to rare earth supplies in the U.S., Alex Moyes, the utility's director of innovation, said. That is because the availability of rare earths will likely impact many power generators, whether it is the need for materials to build out offshore wind farms, the potential for increased electric vehicle uptake to spur new electricity demand or other factors influenced by the availability of the metals.

Utilities can also directly benefit from the recovery of some of the rare elements from coal and coal byproducts because many are still responsible for the waste they have generated from burning coal in the past.

"It's not the mining companies that own these coal ash ponds. It's not the mining companies that have access to them," Moyes said during the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners summit. "Utilities need to get creative. They need to find good partnerships, strategic partnerships, and they need to start figuring out how to capitalize on this liability and turn it into a win-win-win."

That triple win, Moyes explained, is protecting the environment, supporting a domestic supply chain and lowering costs for consumers.

Dominion is looking into pilot projects, has already been testing the rare element concentrations in the coal at some of its coal plants and plans to expand its efforts, Moyes said.

However, producing rare earths from coal waste in the U.S. may not be the cheapest route in the beginning. Moyes said Current prices for rare earth elements are a factor of "poor environmental practices" and lower standards for labor practices in mining and processing the materials in China.

"We're not expecting to come right out of the gates with a price that's going to beat it," Moyes said. "That's why these pilots are important. We've got to understand what we need to do next. We're excited at Dominion to see where we can go with it."