Economic Extraction and Recovery of REEs and Production of Clean Value-added Products from Low-rank Coal Fly Ash

B. Folkedahl, C. Nyberg, J. Kay
University of North Dakota,
United States

Keywords: coal combustion products, REE in ash, REE extraction and processing


The University of North Dakota (UND) Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) teamed with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory; the North Dakota Industrial Commission Lignite Research Program; and commercial partners Basin Electric Power Cooperative, Great River Energy, and Southern Company to execute a Cooperative Agreement funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) focused on identifying unique pathways and pretreatments to extract rare-earth elements (REEs) from low-rank coal (LRC) ash in a more economical and environmentally benign manner than current methods. A comprehensive characterization effort was undertaken to fully establish the form, associations, and partitioning of the REEs and other elements/minerals of interest in fly ash, as well as the ash chemistry, mineralogy, and morphology. Using this information, the team tested methods of REE extraction to take advantage of the unique and advantageous properties of LRC ash. Multiple complementary approaches were evaluated that combined both novel and proven methods to develop an extractive process for REEs and other high-value metals from LRC ash that provide technological and economic progress on the current state of the art. Methodologies were also evaluated for the potential to synergistically remove toxic metals while extracting other high-value metals from the ash, generating a clean, safe ash material as a value-added product. This would eliminate waste and offer significant additional revenue potential. Based on laboratory-scale testing, an initial high-level technical and economic analysis to estimate operating expenses and product revenues to guide future phases of technology development was implemented. By focusing on minimizing process steps and consumptive use of extraction solutions, a tunable, economically viable process for REE extraction from LRC ash was developed. The tunable process has the ability to be adjusted to adapt to the differing ash chemical and physical properties that are characteristic of LRC ash. This is key to deployment as a commercial process. In demonstrating the process, the EERC was able to illustrate mixed REE concentration greater than the goal of 2 wt%. High-level economic analysis of the process with LRC ash of moderate REE levels demonstrated the potential of the process, but recovery of just the REEs was insufficient to cover operational costs. With the additional extraction of other high-value metals found in LRC ash, the process economics approach would break even, and it is anticipated that with process optimization, the developed process could potentially be economically sound. The same economic analysis performed utilizing LRC ash with high levels of REEs showed the recovery of the REEs alone would make the process economically viable even without further optimization. Data gained and lessons learned from this work are contributing to the UND EERC-led Williston Basin CORE-CM project. Sponsored by NETL, this program is one of 13 programs awarded across the nation to examine the supply chain for domestic production of high-value, nonfuel, products from carbon ore, REE, and critical minerals (CORE-CM).