The Rare Earth Elements (REE) project underway on Dotiki mine property outside of Providence got a huge boost late last month when Senator Mitch McConnell announced the awarding of a $5 million competitive federal grant to the University of Kentucky Research Foundation that is overseeing the project.
Rare earths, also known as "lanthanides," are 15 elements that appears on the periodic table separate from the rest of the elements. Lanthanides occur naturally in coal seams, in the refuse or waste from coal mining and in the by-products of coal fired power plants.
These elements are essential parts of modern technology, making up some of the key ingredients of everything from computer screens and televisions to smartphones and rechargeable batteries. They are also used in the construction of renewable energy sources such as wind mills and solar panels.
Currently China is the world's leading producer of rare earths, but researchers are hoping to change that. A team headed by Dr. Rick Honaker, Ph.D., a University of Kentucky mining engineering professor, has taken over the former mine office on Highway 120 East to house the project.
"It is a national security issue," said Honaker who, along with a cast of graduate students and PhDs, currently resides in living quarters constructed inside the facility. "China, with its control of the
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rare earth supply is not a comfortable situation for the U.S."
Honaker went on to say that not only is China the world's largest producer of rare earths, they have begun buying up all of the rare earths in other countries such as Australia.
"They are needed in a lot of different products, and one country has almost all of the resources," he said. "We need to have a source to turn to in the US so we aren't totally depended on one nation."
The $5 million U.S. Department of Energy grant will allow the team to expand its cutting-edge rare earth pilot plant. With these grant funds, UK can advance its innovative research to test new technology and potentially reduce the cost of extracting and refining rare earth elements.
"The University of Kentucky's groundbreaking work is charting a new course for technology, and I was proud to champion funding for this program and support their research," said Senator McConnell. "Dr. Rick Honaker and his team are distinguishing UK as a leading research institution, and I'm committed to using my position as Senate Majority Leader to help them stay at the front of the pack. Together, we're tapping into Kentucky's economic potential and setting it up to lead into the future."
The team currently has a one quarter ton per hour processing facility at its lab outside Providence, but phase two of the project is to build a 20 ton-per-hour commercial production facility.
"If you can go to an industry that is already producing a product where rare-earths could be a by-product, and your processing cost are already covered, the economics are very favorable," Honaker said.
The ideal would be to first identify the most economically sound method of extracting the rare earths from the coal and coal refuse, and then to re-imagine how the refuse is collected at the mine. In the past, to follow EPA guidelines, refuse was often stored in a way to prevent acid water runoff. But he says that acid water is a major benefit in the creation and recover of rare earths.
Honaker added that because of the way refuse had been stored at Patiki, that location has been very interesting. It had what he called the "perfect" setup. The refuse pile was underlined to prevent the acid water from escaping, and when the mine was done with it, they placed a liner over the top.
"We'd like to design them all like that to encourage acid to be produce," Honaker said.
Last year the team did a study of rare earths across the Illinois basin, and although they were found in every single coal seam, one seam stuck out.
"The Kentucky #13 seam has proven to be the best in regards to rare earths," Honaker said. "It is very clear that it has the most promise."
That #13 seam happens to be the same seam that Dotiki mine was working in when production was halted there in August.
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