Secretary of energy spotlights Penn State-industry rare-earth-elements project

Sarma Pisupati, Penn State professor of energy and mineral engineering (third from left), discusses his rare earth elements project with U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry. Credit: Sarma PisupatiAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry highlighted the national importance of a new Penn State–industry collaboration during a recent visit to a Jeddo Coal Company mine in Ebervale, Pennsylvania. Along with Rep. Lou Barletta, of Pennsylvania's 11th district, Perry spoke at a press conference about the collaboration, which aims to extract rare resources from coal. The project is funded by the Department of Energy through the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL).

"I don’t think we can overstate how important the development of rare earth elements out of our anthracite coal is and the potential it’s going to have," Perry said during his remarks. "Our goal is clear. It's to develop an economically competitive supply of rare earth elements."

"Anthracite has been mined here for 150 years," Barletta said, referring to his district in east-central Pennsylvania. "It's used for manufacturing and used for steel. Now, we’re finding we sit on a gold mine."

Penn State is partnering on a project to create an economical way to extract rare earth elements from coal byproducts. Rare earth elements are widely used in consumer electronics, health care, defense and other industries. Sarma Pisupati, professor of energy and mineral engineering, explains the significance of the project.  Credit: Morgann McAfee / Penn State

Energy Days conference sparks collaboration

The collaborative project first got off the ground during Energy Days, an annual conference organized by the Institutes of Energy and the Environment.

Sarma Pisupati, professor of energy and mineral engineering, was presenting at the 2016 conference about research related to extracting rare earth elements from coal. Rare earth elements are 17 metals necessary to produce high-tech equipment used in health care, transportation, electronics and numerous other industries.

Pisupati was approached by Anthony Marchese, chairman of Texas Mineral Resources Corporation (TMRC), about the possibility of scaling that research up to an industrial volume.

"Along with Inventure Renewables Inc. and K-Technologies, we wrote a proposal later that year, and were awarded funding through NETL for 15 months," said Pisupati.

Part of the project’s $1 million grant will fund the construction of a pilot plant at site owned by Jeddo Coal Company.

"We're excited to be a partner on this endeavor," said James Pagnotti, president of Jeddo Coal Company. "Not only does it show the value of anthracite for its many diverse uses, but it also allows us to use material that would normally be discarded as a feedstock."

An environmentally friendly way to maximize resources

The goal of the project is to find an economical way to extract two groups of elements — rare earth elements and critical elements, such as manganese and cobalt — from coal byproducts. These elements are widely used in computers, smart phones, batteries and consumer electronics, as well as in the aerospace, wind and solar energy industries, and in the defense sector.

The U.S. currently imports nearly 100 percent of its rare earth elements, and China produces about 85 percent of the world's rare earth elements.

“From a U.S. national security perspective, the potential to extract critical rare earths from Pennsylvania coal fields could well be game-changing,” said Daniel McGroarty, advisory board member of Texas Mineral Resources Corp., who has testified on strategic materials in the U.S. House and Senate. “With rare earths essential to every major U.S. defense platform from missile guidance control, directed energy weapons and electronic warfare, to electric drive motors, radar, sonar and optical systems, our deep dependence on Chinese-sourced rare earths poses a significant strategic risk.”

"As demand is growing and we are looking more and more at foreign sources for this, it has become increasingly important from a national security standpoint to explore more possibilities," said Pisupati.

The project is environmentally friendly because the team is looking at better utilizing resources that have already been mined, said Pisupati.

"We are looking at extracting these from coal, but we are not mining any additional coal. Whatever we are mining, this would be environmentally friendly if it adds value," said Pisupati.

Penn State's main role in the project is to identify ways to scale up and expand upon Pisupati's initial research results. The researchers are investigating ways to sort various coal samples by density, which is an indicator of what types of rare earth or critical elements might be present. The team will use a chemical process known as ion exchange to isolate and extract the desired minerals from the coal into a solution.

"Once the minerals are in a solution, they can be separated into saleable products, which is where our industry partners have experience," said Pisupati. "At Penn State we have strength in mineral processing and mining. We are utilizing expertise from all sides to make this project successful."

Last Updated August 21, 2018