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Rare earth elements in coal and coal fly ash

September 12, 2019

The rare earth elements (REEs) are a group of 17 elements sharing similar chemical properties. They include yttrium (Y, atomic number 39), scandium (Sc, atomic number 21), and the 15 elements of the lanthanide series, atomic numbers 57 (lanthanum, La) to 71 (lutetium, Lu). Because promethium (Pm, atomic number 61) does not occur in the Earth’s crust and scandium typically has different geological occurrences from other REEs, they are not discussed further herein.

REEs are, on average, more abundant than precious metals (for example, gold, silver, and platinum), but because of their unique geochemical properties, they do not commonly form economically viable ore deposits. Nevertheless, REEs are increasingly required for a range of modern applications in defense and renewable energy technologies and in commercial products, primarily as magnets, batteries, and catalysts. The United States currently (2018) produces REEs from a single mine in California, accounting for just 9 percent of global production, whereas 70 percent of global REE production comes from China. For these reasons, REEs are considered a critical resource, and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has an interest in helping to identify new sources of REEs for domestic production.

In 2017, coal use accounted for about 30 percent of the electric power generated in the United States. Fly ash, produced during the burning of coal, is a fine­-grained solid derived from noncombustible constituents of coal, such as clay minerals and quartz. When coal is burned, REEs are retained and enriched in the fly ash and, as a result, fly ash has long been considered a potential resource for REEs.

The United States has the world’s largest coal reserves and, even though gas-­fired power generation has increased significantly in the last decade, the United States continues to produce vast quantities of fly ash, about half of which is beneficially reused, primarily in construction materials. The remainder is stored, mostly in landfills and impound­ments. Thus, annual fly ash production, combined with fly ash already in stor­age, constitutes a large potential resource.

Research into how to utilize coal and coal fly ash as sources of REEs is ongo­ing. Viable recovery of REEs from coal and coal ash requires identification of coals and ashes with the highest REE concentrations and development of workable methods for REE extraction and recovery. Understanding how REEs occur within fly ash, described in this fact sheet, is one of the keys to developing possible methods for their recovery.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2019
Title Rare earth elements in coal and coal fly ash
DOI 10.3133/fs20193048
Authors Clint Scott, Allan Kolker
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Fact Sheet
Series Number 2019-3048
Index ID fs20193048
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Eastern Energy Resources Science Center