UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The U.S. could soon decrease its dependence on importing valuable rare-earth elements that are widely used in many industries, according to a team of Penn State and U.S. Department of Energy researchers who found a cost-effective and environmentally friendly way to extract these metals from coal byproducts.
Rare-earth elements are a set of seventeen metals — such as scandium, yttrium, lanthanum and cerium — necessary to produce high-tech equipment used in health care, transportation, electronics and numerous other industries.
They support more than $329 billion of economic output in North America, according to the American Chemistry Council, and the United States Geological Survey expects worldwide demand for REEs to grow more than 5 percent annually through 2020. China produces more than 85 percent of the world’s rare-earth elements, and the U.S. produces the second most at just over 6 percent, according to the USGS.
“We have known for many decades that rare-earth elements are found in coal seams and near other mineral veins,” said Sarma Pisupati, professor of energy and mineral engineering, Penn State. “However, it was costly to extract the materials and there was relatively low demand until recently.
Today, we rely on rare-earth elements for the production of many necessary and also luxury items, including computers, smart phones, rechargeable batteries, electric vehicles, magnets and chemical catalysts. We wanted to take a fresh look at the feasibility of extracting REEs from coal because it is so abundant in the U.S.”
Using byproducts of coal production from the Northern Appalachian region of the U.S., the team investigated whether a chemical process called ion exchange could extract REEs in a safer manner than other extraction methods.
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