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WVU researchers move rare earth elements technologies closer to production

Dr. Paul Ziemkiewicz, West Virginia Water Research Institute director and principal investigator (WVU Photo/Greg Ellis)
Dr. Paul Ziemkiewicz, WVWRI director and principal investigator (WVU Photo/Greg Ellis)

Morgantown, W.Va. - West Virginia University researchers are pioneering integrated technologies that extract valuable rare earth elements, or REEs, from acid mine drainage while returning clean water to the state’s rivers and streams.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently awarded a contract with a base award of $149,980 for a conceptual design.  The contract includes one option period for a Feasibility Case Study, which if exercised will be $1,567,889.   West Virginia Water Research Institute’s project at WVU is focused on developing a domestic supply chain that uses the Institute’s technology to capture REEs as oxide powders that can be converted into the rare earth metals used by U.S. manufacturers.

Rare earth elements are important to today’s society because they allow electronic devices to be smaller, faster, and more energy efficient.   This makes REEs critical to national security and a major concern because China mines and exports most of the world’s REE supplies.  Developing a new, U.S. source of REEs from AMD has been a priority for WVWRI since 2016. Their work has been funded by the U.S. DOE National Energy Technology Laboratory.

“From the start, our team has included world-class researchers at WVU and Dr. Aaron Noble’s team at Virginia Tech,” said Dr. Paul Ziemkiewicz, WVWRI director and principal investigator.

The initial phase of this new project will consist of a conceptual study that identifies on-site equipment based on WVU’s state-of-the-art technologies, transportation networks, and central refining facilities for processing one-to-three tons per day of REE oxide powders into REE metals, along with the costs of doing so. 

“Cost is critical. The overall system must lead to a product that is competitive with alternative supplies while providing value to those who extract and refine the materials,” Ziemkiewicz said.

The next step for the research team would be to conduct a front-end engineering design, or FEED, study. The FEED study would support implementing the technologies as early as 2024.

Under the current project, University researchers are working with two private companies whose experience can help ensure a successful path to production.

“Process Engineering Associates will provide private sector expertise on process development and design capabilities, and Hela Novel Metals will design a process for converting our REE oxides to REE metals used by domestic manufacturers for items such as magnets,” Ziemkiewicz said.  “We’re excited to work with two outstanding U.S. companies.  The university’s private sector partnerships are key to moving our technologies from the research lab to production.”

-WVU-

tn/tkw/10/12/20

Contact: Tracy Novak        
WVU Energy Institute
304-212-1496; Tracy.Novak@mail.wvu.edu

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The West Virginia Water Research Institute is a division of the Energy Institute at West Virginia University.  For more information on WVWRI, go to:  wvwri.wvu.edu