Newly licensed technologies developed at Purdue University could mitigate Indiana’s coal ash pollution problem while helping the U.S. be more competitive in a $4 billion market.
American Resources has licensed the environmentally beneficial separation and purification technologies developed by Linda Wang, Purdue’s Maxine Spencer Nichols Professor of Chemical Engineering, to extract rare earth elements from coal ash.
“I am very pleased to see it move from the laboratory to licensing and provide an important environmental value for processing and purifying of rare earth elements,” said Wang.
Rare earth elements are a set of 17 metallic elements that are needed to make cell phones, computer monitors, fiber optics, lasers, medical imaging and many other uses.
American Resources began in 2006 with the purchase of a mining complex in Eastern Kentucky and has been researching ways to move into the REE market for many years.
“The technology developed at Purdue University under Dr. Wang and her great team allows us to separate and purify REEs in a greener method than traditional solvent-based separation methods,” said American Resources CEO Mark Jensen. “Additionally, this technology is specific to our feedstocks that are entirely focused on recycling and reprocessing waste material from coal waste, coal byproducts, and waste permanent magnets and lithium ion batteries.”.
Indiana has more coal ash than any other state. Coal ash is the toxic by-product of burning coal for electricity and is typically stored in either large surface ponds on the utility’s property or in landfills. In Indiana, the majority of these are unlined, meaning there is nothing to separate the coal ash from seeping into the ground water.
Utility plants require large sources of cooling water in order to operate, which has led to their being built along all the major waterways in the state. Several spills have been reported, and incidents of coal ash contaminating ground and well water have also been reported across the state.
This new process could be used to help remove this waste stream from causing further pollution in the state and turn it into something useful.
Coal ash contains high concentrations of REEs because of the burning process of coal.
Currently, China controls more than 80% of the world’s supply of these minerals, while the U.S. produces only three of the critical needed minerals.
REEs aren’t actually that rare, but the facilities to process them are. The standard process is expensive and not environmentally friendly. Due to China’s more lax environmental laws, it became the lead producer of REEs in the 1980s. One mine still operates in the U.S., but that ore is sent to China for processing.
Wang’s technology offers an environmentally safer way to process and purify these elements and also helps the U.S. become less dependent on China as a supplier.
A recent story by the Financial Times reported that the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has proposed possibly limiting production and export of REE to see how much it would impede U.S. defense contractors.
This sparked concern over the interruption in access to rare earth elements, but it also prompted many to explore other avenues for REEs. Australia, Greenland and Saskatchewan in Canada plan to begin or increase REE mining.
The Pentagon sees REE supply chains as a national security concern and has been studying ways to increase production in the states and find other partners to import from. In February, the U.S. Department of Defense awarded $30 million to Lynas Rare Earth Ltd., an Australian company, to build a new facility in Texas for domestic production of rare earth elements.
Former President Trump signed an executive order to look into new sources of REEs and help streamline the permitting process for new mines. President Biden signed an order asking for a review of the supply chain for REEs and ways to make it more secure, resilient and diverse.
Wang’s technology could help address some of these issues, while also putting coal ash to good use.
Jensen said American Resources’ goal is to establish a sustainable and circular chain of REEs.
“Our process chain creates real environmental solutions,” he said. “The recycling and reprocessing of our specific feedstocks is an environmental benefit by removing them from the environment (landfills, waterways, etc.) and reduces the need to dispose of them in the manner in which they were disposed of in the past.”
He also said that a sustainable and circular REE supply chain reduces the need for traditional mining extraction methods and helps clean up the environmental liabilities left by the legacy of the coal industry.
American Resources is possibly building a facility in the state and using Indiana’s coal ash.
“We are very much considering our first LAD chromatography processing facility being in Indiana. Also, our technologies and process chain most definitely is looking at fly ash as a feedstock, but that will depend on the chemical composition of each fly ash deposit,” said Jensen.