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Energy-related rare earth element sources

December 29, 2023

Energy-related materials such as coal, coal-bearing wastes, and coal combustion products are traditionally thought of as sources or by-products of electric power generation. Increasingly, these materials are considered resources for their content of rare earth elements (REEs) and other useful constituents. In this chapter, we examine the distribution, modes of occurrence, and relative extractability of REEs from coal-derived materials. We also consider economic factors associated with recovery of REEs from these sources. While several coal-derived sources show promise for REE recovery at the pilot scale, in all cases, REE contents are much below those of primary ores, such that extraction and concentrating the REEs require new and innovative approaches that are largely developmental.

Among coal-related sources, fly ash is the most REE-enriched, as REEs from coal are strongly retained in these refractory solids remaining after coal combustion. Partitioning of coal-derived elements into fly ash has been known for decades but this has yet to be commercially exploited. A key drawback shown in this chapter is that a significant fraction of REEs in fly ash is contained in highly insoluble aluminosilicate glasses that make up the largest portion of this material. In addition to testing chemical or physical pretreatment approaches to help improve the extractability of REEs from fly ash, current research is applying modern analytical approaches to better understand the distribution of REEs on increasingly smaller scales, in the interest of targeting their recovery.

Next-most REE-enriched among coal-related materials are solid waste products of coal mining and wastes from coal preparation, both of which are REE-enriched relative to coal itself. These waste coals concentrate mineralogical constituents that are excluded during mining or removed during coal preparation because they do not contribute to the heating value of coal for power generation. Recovery of REEs from coal waste has shown promise at the pilot scale and has the added benefit of converting a waste into useful constituents.

Total REE contents of commercial coals are, on average, much below the 300 parts per million interest level for REE recovery set by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). However, as reviewed in this chapter, certain horizons within coal beds show preferential REE enrichment and could be targeted by selective mining. Beyond this, certain coals are REE-enriched overall due to their unique geologic histories involving derivation from REE-enriched sediment sources, deposition of volcanic ash during coal formation, or interaction of coal with REE-bearing fluids.

Acidic drainage from abandoned coal mines is produced by the breakdown of pyrite (FeS2), which is unstable in oxygenated conditions. While these acidic fluids have lower REE contents than any of the coal-based solids described above, they are proportionally enriched in certain heavy rare earths, especially yttrium (Y). Precipitates from coal-based acid-mine drainage concentrate REEs to levels that are of interest for recovery, and these are also promising sources for extraction at the pilot scale.

Publication Year 2024
Title Energy-related rare earth element sources
Authors Allan Kolker, Liliana Lefticariu, Steven T. Anderson
Publication Type Book Chapter
Publication Subtype Book Chapter
Index ID 70231903
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geology, Energy & Minerals Science Center