Researcher: Rare Earth Minerals Key to West Virginia's Future
By Steven Allen Adams
October 8, 2019 - With steam coal being replaced by natural gas and renewables, and a slowdown in metallurgical coal mining for steelmaking, a researcher at West Virginia University sees another use for the state’s coal mines.
Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute at WVU, spoke to members of the press Monday at WVU’s Academic Media Day in Morgantown. The institute is part of WVU’S Energy Institute.
Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, discusses the potential of mines to produce elements needed for modern technology.
Photo by Steven Allen Adams
Ziemkiewicz’ presentation focused on a possible use for West Virginia’s coal mines as sources for rare earth elements. These elements are used in the manufacturing of electronic devices, such as smartphones, tablets, computers, and other modern technologies. Rare earth elements are also used in many clean-energy technologies, such as wind turbines and electric vehicles. Magnets produced from rare earth elements are used for military applications.
In the last several years, the search for rare earth minerals has become more important as consumers, governments, scientists and the military rely more on technological devices. According to the Rare Earth Technology Alliance, 17 elements are considered rare earth elements.
A report from the U.S. Geological Survey states China produces more than 95 percent of the world’s rare earth elements. But the trade war launched by President Donald Trump in June 2018 raised concerns about China possibly tightening its rare earth element supply.
Among those concerned is Ziemkiewicz, but he thinks West Virginia coal mines might hold the answer to the lack of a domestic supply of rare earth elements.
“Bear in mind, we’re getting all of our rare earth elements essentially in this country from China in the form of finished products,” Ziemkiewicz said. “We used to have us lots of rare earth mines in this country, but to a large extent, they went out of business. The Chinese took over the business.”
Ziemkiewicz said the key is acid mine drainage, which he said often contains rare earth elements. In some cases, acid mine drainage can produce more elements than current commercial deposits available around the world.
The water institute estimates there is as much as 666.4 grams per ton of rare earth elements in the sludge leftover from acid mine drainage in southern West Virginia mines. Mines in the northern part of the state have as much as 750.6 grams per ton.
“We have something of a strategic advantage,” Ziemkiewicz said.
Ziemkiewicz, citing the state Department of Environmental Protection’s OMEGA acid mine drainage treatment site outside of Morgantown as an example, said the site could have nearly $1 million in rare earth elements in its sludge.
Acid mine drainage would give producers ready access to rare earth elements instead of having to blast open rocks to obtain the valuable elements. Ziemkiewicz said mines continue to produce acid drainage long after the mine themselves have closed and the price of the elements is less susceptible to fluctuation unlike coal. Panning for rare earth elements at old mines would also have a side benefit: improving the health of streams and waterways.
According to Ziemkiewicz, mines in northern and southern West Virginia produce more than 800 tons of rare earth elements each year, which could be easily ramped up to 1,000 tons per year — valued at $245 million annually — due to infrastructure already in place at the mine sites. The U.S. produces more than 16,000 tons of the elements per year from the only rare earth element mine located in California.
WVU is working on rare earth element research with U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, Rockwell Automation, the state Department of Environmental Protection and the coal industry in the state. The Water Research Institute recently was awarded $5 million by the Department of Energy to continue research of rare earth elements. With help from its partners, the institute has $6.9 million in funding for the project.
The next step for the project is to scale up to a full pilot project. Ziemkiewicz said the institute would be working with the Division of Environmental to construct a new acid mine drainage treatment plant near Mount Storm. The treatment plant would dry out the drainage and allow the plant to collect the rare earth elements.
“We welcome the opportunity to recover value from mine drainage treatment while helping to create a domestic supply chain of strategic materials to the rest of the country,” Secretary Austin Caperton of the Division of Environmental Protection said in a statement. “Our agency can play an important role by working with WVU to develop acid mine drainage treatment plants that use rare earth element oxide recovery technology.”