To help reduce the impact of coal waste on the environment, the DOE made funds to research how rare earth minerals can be extracted from coal. (Image Credit: Tony Mucci / Unsplash)


Burning coal plays a significant role in the adverse effects of climate change and the environment. Pollution mitigation measures seem to have a negligible effect, and CO2 emissions aren’t reduced. Additionally, coal carbon emissions are approximately double that of burning natural gas. Thankfully, the market is choosing to phase out coal since it’s more expensive to generate electricity than natural gas and renewables.


Closing coal mine operations result in massive amounts of coal that pile near old and abandoned sites. Additionally, the mines leak acid through their drainage, causing groundwater to become polluted. Meanwhile, power plants often have coal ash piling up nearby once it’s burned, and the ashes remain there once the plant closes. Currently, there are thousands of sites like these in the US. Now, a solution is under development that could solve this issue while producing rare earth minerals.


Over the past few years, the DOE has funded several pilot plants, where researchers conduct experiments to extract rare earth minerals from coal waste. To date, it collected around $19 million to continue research into how much can be extracted. If a technique seems promising, then additional funding is provided to develop the technology. Plants in Wyoming, West Virginia, North Dakota, Utah, and Kentucky are being developed or planned.


However, extracting rare earth minerals from coal creates some challenges. Laboratories can extract small amounts of highly pure coal. However, these techniques are expensive and produce more pollution or acid waste.


Mandates to clean up mining sites have already been put into effect. Companies operating the mines must invest in a mine cleanup fund, which covers the costs when a mine closes. Adding the extraction of these metals to the cleanup process means that profits from sold metals can go toward mine cleanup. The rest benefits the company that extracts the minerals.


The US also benefits from this. Recycling the minerals from coal opens up an important source of these metals. They’re utilized in batteries, solar panels, electric motors, and wind turbines. More of these minerals are needed if the country shifts toward renewables.


China mines and produces most of the rare earth metals, putting the US in a bad position. Since tensions are high with China, it could ultimately cause the transition to renewables to slow down in the future if international relations worsen.


Coming up with a solution and making it widely used could be challenging but should be worth it in the end. The pilot plants have the potential to make money from selling these minerals, and they could fund and promote mining site cleanups. 


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