Researchers at the University of Kentucky say they have discovered a method of producing rare earths from coal that is cost effective and environmentally conscious.
“As far as I know, our team is the first in the world to have provided a 98 percent pure rare earth concentrate from a coal source,” said professor of mining engineering Rick Honaker.
The US Department of Energy has invested millions in research to extract rare earths from coal in an effort to establish a domestic rare earths supply that is independent of China, currently the world’s largest rare earths producer. The University of Kentucky received $7 million from the department for research on producing coal from rare earths, as well as $1 million for other rare earths projects.
The process the researchers used produced a concentrate made up of more than 80 percent total rare earths on a dry whole mass basis, and more than 98 percent rare earth oxides. Over 45 percent of the concentrate was made up of yttrium and magnet metal neodymium.
Honaker said the recoveries exceed the government’s goal of producing a concentrate containing a minimum of 2 percent rare earths. The research team was also able to separate scandium from the other rare earths using the new recovery process.
The process will be used in a mobile rare earths pilot plant that Honaker’s research team is developing and testing as part of the project. The pilot plant will be operational in the spring of 2018.
The value of global annual rare earth oxide demand for the production of rare earth permanent magnets totaled $1.44 billion in 2016, according to a report from Adamas Intelligence. In the future, the largest amount of demand growth is seen coming from the magnet metals, including neodymium and praseodymium. The firm notes that demand for magnet-oriented rare earth oxides is expected to increase to $6.07 billion by 2025; that’s a compound annual growth rate of 17.4 percent.
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Securities Disclosure: I, Melissa Shaw, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.