Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the Water Research Institute at West Virginia University’s Energy Institute, testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Tuesday, May 14, on recent research advances on the development of a domestic source of rare earth elements.
RREs, the minerals that make electronic devices work, are essential to the economy and national security. Currently, the primary source of these minerals worldwide is China.
Uncertain trade relationships between the U.S. and China makes finding diversified domestic sources critical.
“WVU researchers have found REE concentrations in acid mine drainage from various Appalachian sources that exceed many of the world’s best commercial deposits,” Ziemkiewicz reported to the committee. “Where most conventional rare earth deposits are encased in hard rock and located in the remote wilderness, AMD sludge is already extracted from the host rock and easily accessible resulting in modest processing costs,” he said.
If successful, the research could lead to economic diversification and new economic development opportunities for Appalachia’s coal towns. While the coal market may fluctuate over time, acid mine drainage is constant, Ziemkiewicz added.
“Long after mining is done, the mines still generate AMD and REE. Some of the richest acid mine drainage comes from sites where mining ceased 30 years ago,” he said.
In response to questions about the immediate need for domestic sources, Ziemkiewicz said, “Recovering rare earths from acid mine drainage doesn’t require much permitting. You’ve already got infrastructure, you’ve got a workforce, you’ve got SMCRA permits required by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, and the state and Federal clean water permits.
“Northern and central Appalachian coal mines generate about 800 tons of rare earths per year. That’s a fraction of total U.S. AMD production but that’s still enough for the U.S. defense establishment. The overall economy uses much more, about 16,000 tons per year,” he said.
Ziemkiewicz also noted in his report that WVU is partnering not only with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory but also members of the coal industry, Rockwell Automation, Inc. and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.
“The support we’ve received has been tremendous,” Ziemkiewicz said.