NETL-Developed Sensors Helping Detect Rare Earth Elements in Coal Mining Waste
National Energy Technology Labs
MORGANTOWN, WV (October 9, 2018) — NETL Researchers Paul Ohodnicki, Ph.D., and Dustin McIntyre, Ph.D., have worked with optical sensors and laser induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) for years, adapting their respective technologies to fit different applications. When the U.S. Department of Energy recently made securing a domestic supply of rare earth elements (REEs) a priority, both researchers realized that portable sensors were uniquely suited to achieve this goal.
The nation needs rare earths to manufacture modern technology, but almost all REEs are imported from off-shore. In 2017, DOE and NETL reported to congress that coal and coal byproducts could be viable sources for a domestic supply of rare earths. While this discovery would put the nation on a path to independence from foreign sources of REEs, many technical challenges first needed to be addressed.
That is where Ohodnicki and McIntyre come in. Among the many different approaches to securing domestic REEs from coal and coal byproducts, one crucial step of any potential REE operation is the accurate identification and characterization of REEs in sources like waste streams from coal mining operations. Each researcher’s sensor could be used to determine if rare earths exist in sufficient concentrations to warrant their separation and extraction and to monitor rare earth processing streams.