Researchers at the University of Wyoming have received a $600,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a recovery method for rare earth elements present in the ash of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin coal.

Only 10 projects around the country were selected for funding from the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory that will support the lab’s program to recover rare earth elements from coal and coal byproducts.

Project leader Dr. Maohong Fan, UW School of Energy Resources professor in the College of Engineering and Applied Science, says that the project’s objective is the creation of a pollution-free and cost-effective technology for recovering valuable rare earth elements from coal and coal ash.

“We want to make coal a very valuable resource for engineering a variety of much more treasured carbon, hydrogen, metal-based and other products,” says Dr. Fan.  “In other words, the values of all the elements in coal and coal ash can be significantly elevated with new technologies.”

Unique chemical properties of rare earth elements make them essential components of electronics, computer and communication systems, transportation, national defense, and health care.  The demand and cost of these elements have grown significantly in recent years, emphasizing a need for economically feasible approaches to the elements’ recovery.

As the nation’s top coal producer, Wyoming stands to reap significant benefits from such recovery.  This project is the latest in UW’s string of efforts to create new markets for coal through carbon engineering–creating value-added products with a minimal or even negative carbon footprint–according to UW School of Energy Resources Director Mark Northam.

“UW is a leading institution in the U.S. in converting coal to highly marketable and near-zero-carbon-footprint materials due to the state’s strong support and the efforts of our faculty and students,” says Northam.

“While we continue our work to make traditional uses of coal cleaner and more efficient through carbon capture and storage and other technologies,” says Northam, “it’s clear that the conventional concept of burning coal for energy production is changing globally.”

The project at UW will work toward the design, development, and testing of a three-step, bench-scale extraction process that will utilize carbon dioxide and ferric chloride under supercritical conditions to recover rare earth elements from post-combustion coal ash of the Powder River Basin.  Sampling and characterization of coal ash to identify suitable material for recovery of rare earth elements will be included along with a techno-economic feasibility study and a system design for the proposed recovery technology.

“Our researchers are among the world’s leaders in developing new technologies that will benefit Wyoming’s economy and provide solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges,” says College of Engineering and Applied Science Dean Michael Pishko.  “This research is a great example of research envisioned in Wyoming’s Tier-1 Education Initiative.”