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Researchers produce nearly-pure rare earth concentrates from coal (uky.edu)
85 points by vinnyglennon 7 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 48 comments



Amazing how nobody who reports on this puts forward any numbers.

This Appalachian coal is said to have over 300ppm of rare earth oxides in it.

That means for every ton of coal, we're talking about 300g of material. Compare conventional rare earth ores, where for every ton, we're talking about 90kg (Mountain Pass).

It's nice and all that these things are in coal, but thermal coal's already on its way out, Appalachian thermal coal especially due to its high cost and high sulfur content, and a couple pennies of rare earths per ton is a worse use of resources than Powder River coal + actual rare earth mining.


How much ore is available at these conventional rare earth mining sites I wonder? Even with a 30x lower yield it may be that we have 100x more easily mined coal. When it comes to the so-called rare earths my concern is more about the waste from the refining process than the yield. The press release mentioned 'environmentally-conscious' process, but that is the kind of weasel word that covers a variety of sins so I would need hard data.


Apologies for the nitpick, but I think you mean 300x and 1000x (90000g / 300g).

I don’t know whether there’s 1000 times as much coal available as rare-earth ores, but it might skew the argument a little compared to 100x.


Yeah, conversion fail on my part. OTOH, I would not be surprised at all if the difference in known deposits was more than 1000x in favour of coal, if only because we have been looking for it for so long. 300-1000x does make process throughout and efficiency a bit harder to match though.


The US already produces and consumes 1 billion metric tons of coal per year. Numbers in Europe are similar. Also all this coal is already cleaned and crushed. That's a lot of mass, even at the low yields, and it's essentially "free" ore.

The real limiting factors are throughput and cost of ore processing. If the process can be done economically at the rate of production, it will be implemented. Even if it barely brakes even in terms of finances, it also helps with A) stopping rare earth metals from going airborne (which is a health hazard sometimes) and B) Creating a strategic backup source of rare earth metals and C) Preventing further environmental damage from additional mining for rare earth metals elsewhere.


I'm from the University of Kentucky, and I've been reported on through UKNow before. The reporters are not all that great at getting information about your project, and can contain inaccuracies. I also imagine that, since some of this is patent-pending, they are not willing to divulge much else other than what is described.


One of the plants they are locating the pilot at can apparently process 950 tons of coal an hour:

https://www.tecoenergy.com/news/article/index.cfm?article=20...

So if you process it all and get high extraction, a couple million Kg of rare earths a year.

(I edited the last paragraph after spotting that I missed a factor in my initial math)


Unanswered questions:

- what happens to the carbon from this process? Does it end up as atmospheric CO2?

- what happens to the energy available from that carbon? Thrown away or used to run the process?

- can't you just run this on fly ash?

- how does this compare to regular mining?

- what happens to everything else in the coal, such as sulphur and thorium?


The idea is to insert it into the existing coal consumption pipeline:

https://uknow.uky.edu/research/honaker-awarded-6-million-dep...

It sounds like it is only going to consume byproduct of the washing process.


Scandium is mentioned as one of the "rare" earth elements readily recovered from coal. I can't speak for the viability of this process, but cheap scandium would be a great outcome. Small amounts of Scandium greatly improves the tensile strength, fatigue behavior and other properties of Aluminum.


I was an engineer at a company attempting to extract rare earth metals from fly ash using a solvent method (supercritical CO2). Similar to how caffeine is removed from coffee.

There aren’t a lot of rare earths in coal/fly ash but even modest coal plants produce tons of fly ash daily.


Also fly ash is a pain in the ass to get rid off. I've heard about companies re-using it in concrete products and other construction materials. Even if the value produced is low, any profit is better than dealing with the cost of safely disposing it.


Making cheap bricks with waste ash has been common for decades.

Most British houses have two layers of brick, the nice ones on the outside, and these ones on the inside, which will be covered. An air (or fibreglass) gap between them provides insulation.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concrete_masonry_unit

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cavity_wall


Wouldn’t that make the resulting concrete unusually radioactive?


No, the idea that fly-ash is highly radioactive is a faux created by the nuclear lobby. Some coal is more radioactive than other, but in general they're very safe from this perspective. The real problems are is it's corrosiveness, it's heavy metal content (if any), and the particle size.


I live and learn, thanks. The particle size I assume is an issue for pulmonary reasons? So sequestered in concrete that wouldn’t be an issue, smart.


Waiting for someone to tell point out why this process is super-toxic, or prone to ruining the environment in some other fashion, or some other bad news.

Also curious if anyone can to weigh in on how this might affect China's (supposed) rare earth monopoly, since I presume that was part of the motivation behind the research. Same thing for the coal industry in general.


IMHO, the future is solar energy and storage. If coal wants to remain significant in long term, it has to find arguments.


I could see an argument for coal used to enrich soil for agriculture, if there were a way to economically remove all the toxic metals from it. Urine and bone meal would round it out.

It could be a carbon source for a new type of terra preta.

It would even be useful for the high-sulfur coals.


Both energy and resource-wise it's much cheaper to just grow plants and char them. And you probably end up with side-benefits from growing plants in the process.


What if one of your goals is to buy votes of otherwise-unemployed coal miners?

If the coal has no economic uses for energy production, but the mining has some reason to happen anyway, where the coal itself becomes a by-product, turning it into agricultural soil wouldn't be entirely horrible. The heavy metals would probably have to be removed before disposing of it anyway.


Completely agree, which is why I find the article frustratingly misleading: nice that the produced metal is 98% pure, but that does not tell me anything about how useful the process as a whole is.

But I see that mchannon answered my question, with the answer I expected

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16567314


Coal is not conscious, it cannot want.

The coal industry may want, but like everyone else they're not guaranteed relevance in the long term. Going out of business is capitalism's way of saying your product is no longer required.


> Coal is not conscious, it cannot want.

This is pedantic to the point of wilfully not wanting to understand that the coal industry is implied with that statement. But if we're going down the pedantic route:

> Going out of business is capitalism's way of saying your product is no longer required.

Demand and need are correlated, but not the same. Capitalism works with the former, and also has an entire industry devoted to creating demand when there is no need. I'm not saying capitalism is bad - it is an amoral system and a very effective tool for a lot of things. By itself self-regulates only to the vested interests of the people wielding the tools within the capitalist system, and this does not have to align with societal or planetary needs.


Capitalism exclusively aligns with societal needs, if society does not need or want something we don't buy it, the business evolves or goes bankrupt. Capitalism is not just amoral, but also is democratic in nature.


If society does not need or want something, there is an entire industry devoted to convincing society otherwise, that uses psychological and social modelling on vast and detailed databases of the targeted population.

Democratic systems these days are not followed, they are moulded.


Really, because I thought there was debate of whether or not advertising actually works, especially online advertising.

However, at the end of the day it won't matter. Advertising is available to all companies, we end up with a tug of war over peoples attentions, which will probably result in advertising becoming ineffective.


> Really, because I thought there was debate of whether or not advertising actually works, especially online advertising.

No, there is no debate. No one seriously argues that companies pour half a trillion dollars into advertising that doesn't work.

> However, at the end of the day it won't matter. Advertising is available to all companies, we end up with a tug of war over peoples attentions, which will probably result in advertising becoming ineffective.

It does matter. If the tug of war is between two companies that want you to buy their version of X, there is still no one advertising that you should not buy X at all. This is known as growing the market. Demand is still created in this case.


https://www.forbes.com/sites/danielnewman/2015/04/28/researc...

It's at least not a new thought. Mostly though I'm skeptical that advertising is subverting capitalism.

Is demand created though? How do you know that some people weren't just unaware of the product before, and would have gladly bought it had they known of it.

Because not buying something is the easiest, and default position.


That article has very little concrete info in it, but the core is not that advertising doesn't work but that advertising to millennials effectively requires updated approaches. I certainly would not say that advertising "subverts" capitalism. Advertising is part of capitalism. It always has been. You can't get your wagon repaired if you don't know where the wagon repair shop is.

Advertising is also part of the capitalism chain. Companies demand advertising, so it exists.

> Is demand created though? How do you know that some people weren't just unaware of the product before, and would have gladly bought it had they known of it.

You're describing creating demand. Someone didn't want something because they didn't know it existed. Now they want it. This is the most effective advertising possible.

> Because not buying something is the easiest, and default position.

Ok? If you exit the default position because you saw an ad, the ad worked.


> Advertising is part of capitalism.

Because the core principles of Capitalism could function without advertising, I think this is incorrect.

The main point I was trying to make was that advertising does not remove the inherent Democratic component of Capitalism.

> You're describing creating demand. Someone didn't want something because they didn't know it existed. Now they want it. This is the most effective advertising possible.

The advertiser didn't really create the demand though, it existed before them?


There is certainly a debate over which parts of advertising work most effectively, however I have never heard anyone seriously suggest (until maybe now) that the entire concept of advertising may have no effect at all.


I cede that point, I tend to ignore advertising, and people do debate whether _internet_ advertising works.

However, I don't think that advertising is enough to remove the democratic component from capitalism.


How can you say that with any confidence, while at the same time admitting you have not looked into it?


Because the majority of advertising is for mundane products, which are unlikely to influence people politically.


The majority of politics is to do with the exceptionally mundane and politics in market based economies are as much about what people buy as who they vote for.

If you want a perfect example of this, go back to the start of modern advertising and look up the phrase "Torches Of Freedom" and Edward Bernays.


In the case you cite, advertisers were piggy backing on the feminist movement to sell cigarettes to women because there was a stigma against women smoking.

In what way did this harm democracy? Cigarettes are dying off, because of scientific discoveries, if anything this demonstrates my point.


> Coal is not conscious, it cannot want.

And capitalism has no speech capacity.

If you’re going to be pedantic to the point of abrasiveness, at least don’t use the same shorthand you are criticizing.


What national defense application is yttrium used for?


Yttrium barium copper oxide is a class of materials that exhibit superconductivity at (relative) high temperatures. This has a lot of applications and some of them are defense-related.


Besides the applications in superconductors, it's also used in allows to strengthen, and is used in the creation of certain ceramics and glasses.


Yttrium is used to make high performance filters and oscillators. YIG filters and oscillators are wide band high Q microwave devices used in high performance instruments, radar and frequency agile communication systems. An example would be the AN/ALQ-161A B1-B countermeasure system.


I do hope coal companies come to realize coal is worth far more in valuable rare earth elements than burning it. Maybe then they'll stop pushing their coal fueled pipe dreams.


Unfortunately for your hopes, it looks like the goal of this process is to be able extract rare earths from the coal and still burn the carbon. That would make coal more viable as a fuel, rather than less.


As a rare earth ore, most coal has very little value. From a practical standpoint, this is interesting but not particularly actionable, unless it is a process that is cheap and preserves the other industrial utility of coal.


I’m wondering why rare earths end up in coal in the first place.


Coal (at least most of the time) comes from decaying plants.

Before the plants decayed, they pulled up all manner of minerals from soil. Rare earths behave similarly to iron, so if a plant can uptake iron from its soil (it can) then so can it uptake rare earths.

There are numerous instances of field reclamation from mercury contamination specifically by use of plants to leach the mercury from the soil, then harvest, burn, and safely dispose of the mercury concentrate.

https://www.fastcompany.com/3033295/cleaning-up-polluting-mi...

Same story as this except the latter occurs in a human lifetime, and we want the mercury out of the soil for fundamentally different reasons.


Very interesting, thanks!




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