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Rare, Valuable Elements Extracted In Hazleton Area

April 13, 2019 GMT

Five small glass jars holding powders and flakes of yellow, tan and white prove that a team of companies can extract scarce, valuable elements from mines of Jeddo Coal in the Hazleton area.

Two-letter labels on the jars indicate the contents: Ce — cerium, Sc — scandium, La — lanthanum, Dy — dysprosium and Nd — neodymium.

They’re rare earth elements prized worldwide for use in electronics, aerospace and other hi-tech industries and found, it turns out, in the anthracite region.

During the past year, using a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, the team developed processes to draw the rare earth elements, or REEs, from material scooped out of Jeddo Coal’s properties in Hazleton, Jeddo and Eckley.

Team members presented the jars at a U.S. Department of Energy conference in Pittsburgh this week to show their progress.

“We took $1 million and proved that not only were we able to extract REEs, but we actually produced them,” Anthony Marchese, chairman of Texas Mineral Resources Corp., said. Texas Mineral joined with Penn State University and K-Technologies on the project team with Inventure Renewables. Jeddo Coal isn’t a team member but hosts the project from which it benefits financially.

In the fall of 2017, the Energy Department gave the team and another group headed by Marshall Miller and Associates startup grants of $1 million to help the United States develop sources of REEs. The grant brought Energy Secretary Rick Perry to Jeddo Coal for a tour with then-U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta on Sept. 28, 2017. Currently, the United States depends on China for about 85% of its REEs, for which demand is growing.

“Everybody is excited about these things for our own national security,” said Sarma Pisupati, an engineering professor and research leader on the project at Penn State. “Every iPhone, every wireless device that we use today requires some of these materials.”

Marchese said REEs in the jars are up to 99% pure, “which is commercial grade. You can sell it.”

At the conference, his team showed projections that they could sell $4.75 million of REEs a year. That’s based on building a plant capable of processing 200 metric tons a day of raw material.

Selling aluminum reclaimed from the raw material dug on Jeddo Coal lands will yield even more value — $13 million annually — based on the same size plant. Iron drawn out from the process will be worth another $257,000 a year.

“What’s clear from our project and very interesting is we’re able to extract and potentially sell more than just rare earths. There’s a big market for aluminum. Why not? It makes it more attractive,” Marchese said.

To build the plant, the team asked the Energy Department for a $20 million grant.

At the conference, Marshall Miller, the other group trying to isolate REEs, said it wasn’t ready to build a plant, but that doesn’t mean the department will award a grant to the project based at Jeddo Coal.

The department might opt against making any award, or lack money in its budget to fund a grant.

“We’re not popping the champagne corks yet,” Marchese said.

The department tentatively plans decide about the grant by June 1.

REEs lurk within overburden, the layer of rock above the coal. Workers scoop out overburden with the same equipment that they use while strip mining coal. The group sampled different elevations of the overburden to find the richest lodes of REEs.

Pisupati also found REEs in sludge that settles after treating acid mine water with limestone to precipitate metals and other pollutants out of creeks.

“They store the sludge in ponds. Nobody paid much attention. Now we realize a lot of the ponds are a treasure for us,” he said.

To obtain samples of REEs for the conference, the team worked with small equipment. A metal canister that holds material at high temperature and pressure would fit into an automobile cup holder.

The plant that the group wants to build if awarded a grant would be larger, but not enormous.

Marchese called it room-size, and both he and Pisupati hope the equipment will fit on a tractor-trailer so they can drive the plant to the material rather than truck loads of material to the plant.

“That is the modular design we have in mind,” said Pisupati, chairman of energy and mineral and chemical engineering at Penn State.

He and a handful of other professors and students at Penn State tested various processes for extracting REEs from overburden, sludge or waste coal. They chose a method called ion exchange as most efficient.

They immerse raw material in different media so components such as REEs float or sink based on density. After isolating the density or specific gravity that is richest in REEs, they liquefy that material using acids or less harsh solvents such as ammonium sulfate.

From the liquid, they separate iron and aluminum before breaking out individual REEs with processes refined by their partners at Inventure Renewables.

“Removing some of the rare earths in a form we can sell is our unique ability for all of us together,” Pisupati said.

Normally, he said REEs emerge from solution at values ranging from 5 to 9 on the pH scale.

His team, however, found a way to remove most of the REEs at a pH of 5, which saves money on additives that change the pH and simplifies the process.

Different rare earth elements have different uses. Adding scandium to aluminum, for instance, makes a lighter, stronger metal.

“Life will become easier with those things,” Pisupati said. “We all want lighter, smaller … from defense to medical to consumer products.”

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