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Exciting Coal Research Has Long Way To Go



June 22, 2022 - North Dakota can’t be accused of not trying when dealing with its resources. Among other efforts, it has focused on renewable energy, has set lofty goals for carbon capture and has been studying a number of clean energy options.

The state also is involved in research into whether North Dakota’s lignite coal seams contain rare earth elements that are used to produce touch screens for cellphones, guidance systems for missiles, and motors and batteries for hybrid vehicles.

These elements have value in the manufacture of goods and could provide a boost to the state’s economy. It’s the reason the U.S. Department of Energy has provided $1 million, the North Dakota Industrial Commission has approved a $750,000 grant and coal-related companies have given funds for an Energy & Environmental Research Center study on the feasibility of extracting the rare earth elements from coal. The EERC is at the University of North Dakota.

Researchers know rare earth elements such as neodymium and lanthanum exist in the state’s coal. They don’t know if there’s enough to make it worthwhile to go after it.

“What makes them rare is wherever you find them, they are not in very high concentration. It makes it difficult to extract them in any quantity,” EERC engineer John Kay said.

He leads a team of 20 people working for the next year to determine the potential for an industry involving rare earth elements, critical minerals and carbon ore in North Dakota.

It would be especially satisfying for North Dakota and the nation if the state could become a source for the rare minerals. At present, most of the world’s supply comes from China. The Chinese also manufacture products that require the rare elements. The Chinese government can reward and punish other nations when it decides who gets the exports.

Several other entities in North Dakota are exploring the potential of rare earth minerals in the state. The North Dakota Geological Survey has been collecting samples of lignite from western North Dakota since 2015. The Geological Survey notes that “only a small portion” of lignite has been investigated and “the statistical likelihood is that the most enriched or thickest bed of enriched lignite remains undiscovered.”

Overnight success isn’t guaranteed for the state when it comes to rare earth elements from coal. Even if it’s decided North Dakota should go after the minerals, it’s not a simple, quick process.

Once mined, the coal needs to be processed with chemicals to extract the rare earth and critical elements. There’s also the question of whether prices will remain high for the elements.

But it’s worth the effort to study the possibilities. Nothing changes if we don’t make the effort.

Kay said there’s a lot of technology that needs to be developed to do it effectively. The good news: “We’re right on the front edge of making this happen.”