Partners designing a plant to extract rare earth elements from coal waste in Hazleton are part of a group awarded $1.2 million to widen a search for those materials.
Penn State University leads the group that will look for rare earth elements in three-fourths of Pennsylvania and parts of Ohio, New York, West Virginia and Maryland.
Sarma Pisupati, director of the Center for Critical Minerals at Penn State, said the team will start prospecting in databases of the U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Geological Survey and Pennsylvania Geological Survey. After that, researchers will take samples from sites to examine in laboratories.
“This project is basically to look at what we have, what we can get and what are the technologies that can be used to extract these,” Pisupati said.
On April 29, the U.S Department of Energy said the Penn State group won a grant to catalog rare earth elements and critical minerals in the Northern Appalachian Basin.
The basin covers most of Pennsylvania, including Luzerne, Carbon and Schuylkill counties, but excludes the state’s Southeast. The basin also stretches across New York’s Southern Tier, Eastern Ohio and much of Northern West Virginia.
In addition to cataloging rare earth elements, the group will document other critical minerals and waste streams, develop strategies to recover minerals and look for gaps in the basin’s supply chains, the Energy Department said in a statement about the grant.
Along with Penn State, group members are Tetra Tech, American Resources, USA Rare Earth and Texas Mineral Resources Corp.
On April 22, Texas Mineral Resources, Penn State and McCarls engineering of Beaver Falls, Beaver County, announced that they received a separate grant of $1.1 million from the Energy Department. With that grant, they will design a mobile unit that can process rare earth elements from overburden rock and soil at Jeddo Coal in Hazleton.
In the past five years, Texas Mineral Resources has taken part in five federal grants related to rare earth elements.
Fifteen elements in the lanthanide series at the bottom of period tables are considered rare earths, along with scandium and yttrium.
Rare earth elements are used in batteries for electronic cars, magnets for computer drives and wind turbines and catalysts to refine petroleum or build catalytic converters of automobiles.
The glass industry makes the most use of rare earth elements to polish lenses and provide luminescence and color for screens as small as cellphones or large as scoreboards.
Lanthanum, a component of lenses for digital cameras, has sold for $2 a kilogram over the past five years.
In that span, however, prices per kilogram escalated to $258 from $198 for dysprosium and to $628 from $415 for terbium, the most expensive rare earth elements, the USGS said in a mineral commodities summary in January.
Though called rare, all of the elements except promethium are more common than gold, silver or platinum, the USGS said in a fact sheet about them in November 2014.
Supplies, however, tightened in the past decade when China, which provides 95% of them, restricted sales, according to the U.S.G.S.
“They are using it in every negotiation as a chip,” Pisupati said when explaining why the United States seeks to develop more sources of rare earth elements.
When awarding a grant to the Penn State group, the Energy Department dispensed a total of $19 million to groups researching rare earth elements in 13 regions of the nation.
Most of the groups will examine coal mining areas.
Pisupati said rare earth elements can be associated with coal, with clays beneath coal seams or with roof rock atop coal seams.
“And some resources are not coal-related (that) we are looking at,” he said.
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