Rare earth elements in phones could come from U.S. coal

Rare-earth elements are a set of seventeen metals—such as scandium, yttrium, lanthanum, and cerium—needed to produce high-tech equipment like computers and smartphones. (Credit: iStockphoto)

The United States could soon decrease its dependence on importing valuable rare earth elements by extracting it from coal.

Rare earth elements are widely used in electronics, such as smartphones and computers, and in many other industries.

Worldwide demand for REEs is predicted to grow more than 5 percent annually through 2020.

China produces more than 85 percent of the world’s rare earth elements (REEs), and the US produces the second most at just over 6 percent, according to the United States Geological Survey, which estimates worldwide demand for REEs to grow more than 5 percent annually through 2020.

“We have known for many decades that rare earth elements are found in coal seams and near other mineral veins,” says Sarma Pisupati, professor of energy and mineral engineering at Penn State. “However, it was costly to extract the materials and there was relatively low demand until recently.

“Today, we rely on rare earth elements for the production of many necessary and also luxury items, including computers, smartphones, rechargeable batteries, electric vehicles, magnets, and chemical catalysts. We wanted to take a fresh look at the feasibility of extracting REEs from coal because it is so abundant in the US.”

Discarded coal

Using byproducts of coal production from the Northern Appalachian region, the team investigated whether a chemical process called ion exchange could extract REEs in a safer manner than other extraction methods.

For example, past research has examined “roasting,” a process that is energy intensive and requires exposure to concentrated acids. In contrast, ion exchange is more environmentally friendly and requires less energy. Ion exchange involves rinsing the coal with a solution that releases the REEs that are bound to the coal.

“Essentially, REEs are sticking to the surface of molecules found in coal, and we use a special solution to pluck them out,” says Pisupati. “We experimented with many solvents to find one that is both inexpensive and environmentally friendly.”

The team reported in their findings, published in the current issue of Metallurgical and Materials Transactions E, that ammonium sulfate was both environmentally friendly and able to extract the highest amount of REEs. Extracting 2 percent of the available REEs would provide an economic boon to companies, the team says.

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“We were able to very easily extract 0.5 percent of REEs in this preliminary study using a basic ion exchange method in the lab,” says Pisupati. We are confident that we can increase that to 2 percent through advanced ion exchange methods.”

The researchers used coal byproducts in their study, some of which were discarded or marked as refuse during mining operations due to poor quality. Finding more uses for discarded coal could provide yet another economic benefit to companies.

In their study, the team also identified the locations within the coal seam that contained the highest amounts of REEs. Often the highest concentration is found in the poorest quality coal, says Pisupati.

“You find some REEs in the coal itself, but the highest concentration is in what we call the coal shale, or the top layer of a coal seam. Knowing this, we can further target our operations to be more efficient,” he adds.

The team is now collaborating with several Pennsylvania coal-mining companies to explore the viability of a commercial REE-extraction operation.

Researchers from the US Department of Energy, which funded the project, took part in the study.

Source: Penn State