Energy Department keeps spigot open for new coal mining ideas that help Silicon Valley

The Energy Department handed out $17 million Wednesday to move coal country toward becoming a source of valuable “rare earth” metal and elements for Silicon Valley.

The agency announced that four academic institutions in West Virginia, Kentucky, North Dakota, and Massachusetts will receive the funding to pursue two projects to advance the recovery of rare earth minerals from abandoned coal mines and coal waste.

Wednesday’s funding comes from a program developed under the Obama administration and supports technologies that the Energy Department had proved under a 2015 funding allocation.

Rare earth elements, found in the Earth’s crust, are key components for electronics, defense systems, and communications, among others. “The demand for [these elements] has grown significantly over recent years, stimulating an emphasis on developing economically feasible approaches for domestic REE recovery,” the Energy Department said.

It said the four selected research projects will further the goals of the Energy Department’s Fossil Energy Office’s Rare Earth Elements Program “by focusing on the development and validation of cost-effective and environmentally benign approaches for the recovery” of the elements.

The projects being funded address two aspects of rare earth recovery. First, West Virginia University and the North Dakota Institute for Energy Studies will focus on developing “bench-scale technology” to separate, extract and concentrate mixed rare earth elements from coal and coal byproducts.

Second, the University of Kentucky Research Foundation and the private Massachusetts company Physical Sciences Inc. will focus on “pilot-scale technology to economically separate, extract and concentrate mixed rare earth elements from coal and coal byproduct solids.” Those byproducts include the waste derived from power plants, or coal ash, that has to be stored or buried.

Although Massachusetts is not coal country, Andover-based Physical Sciences “will use coal fly ash physically processed near Trapp, [Kentucky], as their feedstock,” according to the agency.

The Kentucky and Massachusetts projects will receive most of the funding, with each project receiving about $6 million each. The West Virginia and North Dakota projects will get less than $6 million.

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