WVU receives $3 million to boost rare-earth extraction capacity

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WVU receives $3 million to boost rare-earth extraction capacity
Mine drainage seeps from the Richard Mine site on Deckers Creek in Monongalia County. (WVU Photo/Brian Persinger)

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — researchers plan to increase the supply of rare earth elements and critical minerals extracted from across the country, thanks to $3 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Defense.

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A team led by Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the Water Research Institute at WVU, will establish resource recovery sites in West Virginia and Montana as part of the project.

Beginning in 2016, Ziemkiewicz and his colleagues pioneered a way to extract rare earth elements and critical minerals, which power everything from smartphones to the nation’s missile guidance system, from acid mine drainage. This latest project expands its demonstration program beyond coal mines and will involve a large copper mine.

Three acid mine drainage treatment plants will be operated at coal sites in Bismarck, West Virginia, in Grant County, and Fola, West Virginia, in Clay County, and at Montana Resources’ copper mine in Butte, Montana.

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“This funding allows significant broadening of our feedstock supply to include AMD from Appalachian coal mines as well as hard rock mines in the West,” Ziemkiewicz said. “This project also focuses on feedstock supply to a central REE/CM refinery by including significant as well as small acid mine drainage sources.

“Hard-rock mining sites such as copper mines tend to collect AMD on a much larger scale than coal mines and, often, the rare earth elements and critical minerals concentrations are substantially higher. This means that relatively few hard rock AMD sites can generate very significant volumes of high-grade preconcentrate.”

The Montana site is operated by Montana Resources and produces about 5,500 gallons of acid mine drainage per minute, while the Bismarck plant, which is used by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, treats up to 1,000 gallons per minute. At the other end of the scale, the Fola location’s capacity would be about 100 gallons per minute.

The project team will also collaborate with Continental Heritage at Fola, West Virginia, in Clay County. Much of West Virginia’s drainage-based rare earth elements and critical minerals feedstock is currently produced at small, remote discharges like Fola, with flow rates in the range of 10 to 200 gallons per minute.

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“Together, they add up to a lot of potential REE/CM,” Ziemkiewicz said. “We need to demonstrate that it can be done at scale while producing clean water and a revenue stream for the operators.”

He explained the team is using a patented WVU process that will recover preconcentrate that can be transported to a central refinery for processing to rare earth elements and critical minerals products for the domestic market.

China currently dominates the global market, accounting for more than two-thirds of rare-earth metal production, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Based on previous small-scale tests, Ziemkiewicz expects the three sites to produce a uniform feedstock to which a grade/specification and value can be assigned.

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“This means the central refinery can purchase feedstock from suppliers and process it with minimal adjustment related to the source of the concentrate,” he said. “Nearly all of the infrastructure needed to install our technology is in place and operational at each site.”

The sites will be continuously operated, Ziemkiewicz added, and the WVU Rare Earth Extraction Facility will evaluate the pre-concentrate.

The WVU research team also recently earned $8 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to undertake a study to design and evaluate the economics of a full-scale central refinery to produce rare earth elements and critical minerals products using AMD-based feedstock.

“Our team at WVU and Virginia Tech, the West Virginia DEP, and our industry partners have worked hard to bring this concept to successful pilot scale testing,” Ziemkiewicz said. “Thanks to the continued support of our congressional delegation through DOE and now, DoD, we will push this novel source of REE/CM out of the lab toward commercial reality.”

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Jake Stump, director of WVU Research Communications, contributed this story.

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