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MEI Online: Environmental Issues: Latest News: October 29th 2019


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:: WVU Awarded $5 million to Continue Rare Earth Project, Build Acid Mine Drainage Treatment Facility


The West Virginia Water Research Institute at West Virginia University has been awarded $5 million by the U.S. Department of Energy to scale up its successful Rare Earth Recovery Project, which will include building a facility at a new acid mine drainage treatment plant near Mount Storm. The funding received the full support of West Virginia’s five congressional delegates and will help cover the third phase of the project, which began with a pilot plant in 2018. Rare earth elements are used to power everything from smartphones to the nation’s missile guidance system, and they come from an unlikely Appalachian source – acid mine drainage sludge.

With the new funding, the WVWRI will partner with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Special Reclamation to design and build the plant, Rockwell Automation to provide sensor and control technology, and TenCate Corporation to engineer materials for rare earth element extraction. “This is a great opportunity to demonstrate the economics and environmental benefits of combining AMD treatment, watershed restoration and critical mineral recovery,” said Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the WVWRI. “The team has worked together for the past several years and we are poised to move rapidly toward commercial development.”

Rare earth metals consist of the 17 chemically similar elements at the bottom of the periodic table, such as cerium and scandium. Despite their name, they’re not “rare” because they’re often found in other minerals, within the earth’s crust or, in this case, in coal and coal byproducts.

Ziemkiewicz initially helped jumpstart the project by examining 120 acid mine drainage treatment sites throughout West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Ohio. His team found that acid mine drainage could produce up to 2,200 tons of rare earth elements per year in those states.

About 15,000 tons of rare earth elements are used annually in the U.S., although the country imports nearly all of them. China produces roughly 83 percent of the world’s rare earth elements used in modern technologies such as phones, batteries, TVs and medical and defense applications. The U.S. has lagged behind in this market because the processing of rare earths is considered cumbersome, costly and energy intensive. Conventional extraction efforts involve grinding through masses of rock and disturbing undeveloped land.

In 2018, with National Energy Technology Laboratory funding, a bench scale pilot plant was opened through a collaboration with Rockwell Automation and Shonk Investments LLC on WVU’s campus to test the technical and economic feasibility of extraction and refining technology, with an eye to rapid commercialization. “AMD treatment is an environmental obligation,” Ziemkiewicz said. “But it could turn into a revenue stream and create economic opportunity.”




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