Rare earth discovery means coal mines could play key role in energy transition

From Pennsylvania to northern England, coal mines fueled the Industrial Revolution and fueled economic growth around the world.

energy transition

Today, however, the production and use of coal has become a sensitive issue, with critics criticizing the fossil fuel’s massive environmental impact.

Groups such as Greenpeace describe coal as “the dirtiest, most polluting form of energy production”. From the United Nations secretary-general to the International Energy Agency, there is growing talk of phasing out coal. But the global situation is complex. A variety of factors play a role, not least the desire of some countries, especially emerging economies, to use coal as a tool for their own economic development.

As the debate over coal continues, discussions about its use and associated infrastructure as part of the transition to a more sustainable future have become one of the most contradictory aspects of the energy transition. The company, along with researchers from mining consultancy Weir International and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory, released an independent report providing a technical assessment of rare earth elements (REEs) found at one of its Wyoming mines.

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The results appear to be significant. “After 18 months of extensive core drilling and independent chemical analysis, NETL researchers and Ramaco now believe the Brooke Mine may contain the largest unconventional rare earth deposit ever discovered in the United States,” Ramaco said. Earlier this month, Ramaco CEO Randall Atkins explained his company’s initial The reasons for purchasing the site and how its plans have changed over time.

“It’s a fairly large reserve that’s available at a very reasonable price and we thought we could use it as a thermal coal project, but you know, about ten years ago, the world was changing very quickly,” he said. “The idea of ​​putting money into thermal mines became very unappealing. So our approach was basically, ‘What else can we do with this stuff?’ “

This led to the company embarking on a “ten-year quest to explore various other alternative uses for coal”. As China dominates the supply and refining of rare earths, discoveries like Wyoming’s could be strategically important as the race to adopt future technologies heats up.

“Most rare earth deposits outside China are associated with ‘traditional’ mines and are located in hard-rock igneous rock deposits, which makes them difficult and expensive to mine and process,” Ramaco said. “In contrast, the rare earth elements at the Brook Mine have been described as ‘unconventional’ as they are predominantly found in clay layers above and below the coal seam itself,” it continued. “It is expected that they can be mined using normal open-pit mining techniques and processed in a more economical and environmentally friendly manner than traditional rare earth mines.”

A glimmer of hope?

Wyoming is not the only region in the United States considering coal and rare earth mining. In April, for example, West Virginia University announced that its researchers would receive an $8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. It is stated that the funding will allow them to continue developing and advancing “groundbreaking methods for the extraction and separation of rare earth elements and critical minerals from acid mine drainage and coal waste.”

Elsewhere, Penn State researchers are also focusing on ways to extract rare earths and critical minerals from coal mine waste. Across the Atlantic, efforts are also underway to retrofit old coal mines so they can continue to be used for many years to come. In Scotland, researchers have been studying how water that fills disused mineshafts can be used to heat buildings in a decarbonized way.

In addition to coal, other energy sources have the potential to produce by-products that are critical for sustainable technologies such as electric vehicle batteries. In southwest England, Geothermal Engineering Ltd. recently announced it will produce lithium as a by-product of its geothermal power projects.

According to the company, lithium is enough to power about 250,000 electric vehicle batteries each year. The company said: “GEL’s primary geothermal business includes the provision of baseload geothermal energy and heat and the production of naturally hot geothermal brines that can sustainably extract lithium as a by-product from UK land.”

China’s transition to electric cars is so fast that Volkswagen is on track to post its worst local sales in years Despite these promising developments, the fact remains that coal continues to play an important role in power generation, accounting for just over a third of global electricity generation, according to the International Energy Agency.

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