29 Sep UND awarded $6.5 million to extract rare earth elements from North Dakota lignite coal
The University of North Dakota has been awarded $6.5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy and other project sponsors to build a pilot plant that will extract rare earth elements – components used for everything from cell phones to defense technology – from North Dakota lignite coal.
The project is in the third phase and builds on previous awards which have resulted in patented technology developed at UND.
The pilot plant, which will be located in Grand Forks county, will be able to process a quarter-ton of lignite per hour, yielding one to two tons of rare earth elements, said Mike Mann, executive director of the UND Institute for Energy Studies and one of the principal investigators of the project.
“This project’s goal is to create domestic sources of rare earth elements,” said Mann. “We want to build a plant in North Dakota that commercializes the technology and benefits UND, the State of North Dakota, and the nation.”
Rare earth elements (REE) are quite valuable, and include scandium, yttrium, and the lanthanide series. Critical for national security, they are used in defense alloys, cell phones, electronics, computer hard drives, electric cars and more. Currently, the U.S. imports 100 percent of rare earth elements, mostly from China. Finding domestic sources is a priority to ensure national security.
North Dakota lignite coal is particularly rich in rare earth elements, and UND researchers have been seeking effective and affordable ways to extract them from lignite. Previous awards to UND have resulted in discovering which elements are in lignite and finding new methods of extraction. A 2017 award of $2.75 million enabled researchers to scale up the lab with the goal of producing a 2 percent concentrate of REE from lignite. Instead, researchers exceeded the goal and were able to produce a concentrate with 65 percent of rare earth elements and other critical materials, such as valuable germanium and gallium.
The process, which is being patented, is an environmentally friendly chemical extraction which leaves higher quality lignite that can then be sold for a higher price.
Most lignite mines in North Dakota have coal veins that contain elevated concentrations of rare earth minerals, said Nolan Theaker, research engineer with the Institute of Energy Studies and the project co-investigator.
“Rare earth elements are not made equally,” Theaker said. “North Dakota lignite has more of the high-value heavy rare earth elements than other coals, and it’s relatively easy to extract with our process. Additionally, our by-product is an upgraded coal. Better coal fetches better prices.”
“This technology creates a ‘value chain,” said Mann. “It takes the lignite, extracts rare earth elements, which are of considerable value, and returns lignite that has higher value.”
DOE is sponsoring approximately 80 percent of the $6.5 million award, with the remainder from partnerships with the North Dakota Lignite Energy Council and private industry, including North American Coal Corporation, Minnkota Power Cooperative, BNI Energy, Great River Energy, and Great Northern Properties.
David L. Dodds
Director of Communications
Division of Marketing & Communications
University of North Dakota