Since joining Virginia Tech in June, 2017, Dr. Aaron Noble, mining and minerals engineering department associate professor, has secured approximately $2 Million in Department of Energy funded projects aimed at developing technologies for recovering rare earth elements from coal and coal byproducts.

The projects will be managed by the National Energy Technology Laboratory, and the most recent awards are supported through the funding opportunity announcement, Development of Separation and Extraction Processes for Production of Rare Earth Element (REE) Materials from Domestic U.S. Coal and Coal By-Products.

These awards come on the heels of an earlier award to Virginia Tech University Distinguished Professor Roe-Hoan Yoon. Under that $6 million funded project, Yoon and his research team at the Center for Advanced Separation Technologies (CAST) at Virginia Tech will design and construct a pilot-scale plant for recovering REEs from coal byproducts. The CAST group, which currently includes Yoon (CAST Director), Noble (CAST Associate Director), and Dr. Gerald H. Luttrell, has had notable success in the past in developing and commercializing technologies for the coal and minerals industries.  With these awards, Virginia Tech and CAST are uniquely positioned to expand their expertise and become a leader in rare earth extraction from coal.

The projects are expected to be completed by 2020 and are seeking to develop both bench-scale and pilot-scale technologies to economically separate, extract, and concentrate mixed REEs from coal and coal byproducts, including aqueous effluents. While coal material does tend to have elevated concentrations of REEs, the form and structure of the elements create challenges in the separation process. This technical challenge creates a need for novel and innovative processing solutions to successfully extract REEs in an economic and environmentally-benign manner.

dr. aaron noble
Aaron Noble

With the new awards, Noble is collaborating on a series of initiatives being carried out several universities, including the University of Kentucky, West Virginia University, the University of Utah, and Virginia Tech. Individual projects will examine a wide range of research issues such as the screening and evaluation of REEs in acid mine drainage discharges, the evaluation of mineralogy and leachability from coal feed stocks, identifying cost effective extraction processes for REEs from clays and shales associated with coal, and the development of extraction methods based on integrated heap leaching and solvent extraction.

The demand for REEs, which are critical elements for many modern technologies, has grown significantly in recent years, necessitating the development of economically feasible approaches for recovering them domestically. These new projects will further the goals of the DOE Office of Fossil Energy’s Rare Earth Elements Program by focusing on

the development and validation of cost-effective and environmentally benign approaches for recovering REEs from coal resources. If successfully implemented, this research will not only provide a secure domestic feedstock for critical raw materials, but will also create additional jobs in coal communities.