Duke Energy engineers and contractors survey the site of a coal ash spill at the Dan River Power Plant in Eden, North Carolina, in 2014. According to research, some toxic leftovers from coal mining could be harvested for rare minerals that are widely used in high-tech industries. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

Funded by a $1.2 million U.S. Department of Energy grant, a consortium of researchers will determine if critical minerals can be extracted from the waste byproducts of Appalachian coal mining.

More measures like this could be a “game changer” for the rural Appalachia regions once dependent on coal for their economy, experts say. 

Critical minerals include metals and non-metals like gallium, indium, tungsten, platinum , cobalt, magnesium, and lithium that are considered vital for the world’s economy, yet whose supply may be at risk because of scarcity. The minerals are used in the manufacturing of diverse products such as mobile phones, flat screen monitors, wind turbines, electric cars, solar panels and other high-tech applications.

The minerals are produced almost entirely by foreign countries, however. China alone produces about 85% of the world’s supply of critical minerals.

The minerals are typically found in the ground in low concentrations, and harvesting is not only costly, but also environmentally damaging. By looking for the minerals in coal and its waste products, researchers hope to find an affordable and more environmentally friendly alternative.

The Department of Energy found that those critical minerals can be drawn out of coal-based resources like coal waste, refuse, over/under burden materials, ash and acid mine drainage. In 2011, the DOE identified 16 critical elements in coal-based resources that  are essential for making wind turbines, electric vehicles, PV cells and fluorescent lighting. Five rare earth elements—dysprosium, terbium, europium, neodymium and yttrium—were found to be critical to making magnets for wind turbines and electric vehicles.

Kyle Kopko, director of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, said finding critical minerals in coal waste could bring an economic rebound for formerly coal-based economies. 

“Clearly, there is a market demand for these minerals, and if Pennsylvania or greater Appalachia becomes a part of the production of those minerals, that will be a game changer for these economies,” he said. “Job rates in coal-based economies have been declining for years. That’s part of a larger issue facing Rust Belt communities across the country. This could bring about jobs to replace those lost.”

According to Penn State University, the project titled the Consortium to Assess Northern Appalachia Resource Yield (CANARY) will assess and catalog northern Appalachian-basin critical mineral resources and waste streams. 

“CANARY will build on the prior work and current expertise of Penn State and its partners to evaluate the critical mineral production potential of the Northern Appalachian basin,” said Lee Kump, Dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at the Pennsylvania State University in a statement. “Extracting critical minerals from coal waste has the potential to catalyze regional growth and create jobs while simultaneously remediating long-standing environmental problems, reclaiming abandoned mines, and helping the country meet its raw-material needs for future development of an advanced, technology-driven society.”

The two-year project will help the consortium get a better idea of what resources are available in the region by collaborating with the U.S. and state Geological Surveys and state environmental agencies to review databases of historic mining and processing sites.

“We really don’t have a database or an assessment of what is out there and how much of our demand can be met with these secondary resources,” said Sarma Pisupati, professor of energy and mineral engineering at Penn State and director of the project. “That’s what’s missing. This is very crucial for industry to have a strategy for developing these resources and making them commercially extractable and available. We are very excited about this project.”

The project is part of more than $109.5 million in funding from the DOE that aligns with the White House Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization report delivered to President Joe Biden in late April that included recommendations to revitalize the economy and create good-paying, union jobs in coal, oil and gas communities across the country.

“The very same fossil fuel communities that have powered our nation for decades can be at the forefront of the clean energy economy by producing the critical minerals needed to build electric vehicles, wind turbines, and so much more,” said Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm in a press release. “By building clean energy products here at home, we’re securing the supply chain for the innovative solutions needed to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 – all while creating good-paying jobs in all parts of America.”

What information comes from the project will be the first step in replacing coal jobs with critical mineral jobs, Congress members said.

“The coal industry downturn has left many West Virginians without the good-paying jobs they once relied on, which has negatively impacted our state economy,” said Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee said in a statement. Manchin said he’s pleased the DOE is investing in West Virginia University’s Mid-Appalachian Carbon Ore, Rare Earth and Critical Minerals Initiative.“Not only will this project create innovative solutions for a cleaner energy future, but it will also spur economic growth and create good-paying jobs in the Mountain State.”

That project, at West Virginia University Research Corporation in Morgantown, West Virginia, will get $1.5 million from the DOE to focus on the expansion and transformation of the use of coal-based resources to produce critical minerals. 

But the commercial aspects of the project are a long way off, said Dr. James Hower, research professor with the Center for Applied Energy Research at the University of Kentucky. While scientists know those elements are in the coal-based resources, research still needs to be done to determine how to extract them. After that, more research will need to be done to determine if those extraction processes are commercially viable. 

“It could be in about ten years,” Hower said. “With the rare ones that they started funding back around 2015, those are the ones that are starting to get more towards the commercial end of things. How big that commercial production is going to be, I don’t know.” 

But, Hower said, getting critical and rare earth elements out of the ground is not going to either replace the world’s supply, or replace the coal industry. 

“You’re not going to be replacing the world supply with a production plant in Kentucky, or West, Virginia, or Pennsylvania. That’s just not going to happen,” he said. “But you could make a dent in it and at least develop more of a domestic resource, which is what the goal is with Department of Energy and Department of Defense.”

And it won’t clean up all of the waste created by the coal mining industry, he said. 

While he said he thought whatever was left over would be more environmentally sound, there will still be some waste left over. What happens to that waste, he said, is up to the companies that are commercially processing the waste. 

“Some of this has been you know it was produced and it may be lying in ponds, and there were problems, so some of the ponds have been removed and the material put into landfills,” he said. “In an ideal world,… We’re looking to reuse as much of the material as possible… once it’s removed though, it’s my understanding it would be in the possession of and the property of the people who are removing it. They’re paying the utility for the material and then it’s their responsibility and they’ve got to do whatever is necessary to take care of (what’s left over).” 

The projects are part of a larger program at the DOE that will provide $19 million in funding for 13 projects across the country including in the Appalachian Basin from Maryland to Alabama; the San Juan River-Raton-Black Mesa Basin covering Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico; the Illinois Basin covering Illinois, Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee; and the Williston Basin in Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota, among others.

While the projects will help create jobs and possibly clean up the environment, no one should expect anyone to start digging lithium out of the ground tomorrow. This is just the first step, Kopko said, to bringing critical mineral extraction to these rural areas. 

“This is just a first step,” he said. “I don’t think we have a grasp yet on what is available, so having Penn State work to catalog it all is an important part of the process.”

The process will likely take years of research and monitoring before jobs could come from these initial programs, he said.