The Elements of Innovation Discovered

An unconventional critical minerals push

DOE bombards the search for alternative supplies with funding Critical Minerals Alliances 2023 - September 12, 2023

As the cracks in the wall continue to chill the bones of an ill-prepared American clean-energy economy, attention has been paid to nearly every facet imaginable to obtain the minerals critical to fuel a zero-carbon future; however, all has seemingly been quiet on the unconventional front.

Repeated time and time again during the ongoing transition, U.S. policymakers are becoming increasingly concerned about the overreliance on China for the minerals and metals essential to clean energy technologies.

Today, China controls roughly one-third of the global market for critical minerals and rare earth elements, and several countries, such as the U.S., Canada, Australia, United Kingdom, and many of the surrounding European Union countries, are making strides toward developing robust and domestic resource extraction and processing industries of their own to break away from the risk of a supply cutoff.

To take advantage of the federal tax credits in the U.S. for electric vehicles from legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act, American and even allied country companies based in the U.S. will require 40% of an EV battery's minerals and 50% of the components to come from the U.S. or free trade agreement (FTA) countries, recycled or raw, to be eligible for the tax credit, and for foreign companies, as long as "final assembly of which occurs within North America."

In 2027 and 2029, this requirement will increase to 80% for minerals and 100% for components.

To aid in the process, a recent executive order by President Joe Biden aims to create a domestic supply chain for critical minerals by reviewing the vulnerabilities that have persisted after the last several years of shuffling about to fill in the numerous holes in minerals and metals self-reliance.

"We can see that a lot of these existing conditions in the global market and the region support both the establishment and growth of the rare earth metal industry, as well as the industries supporting it," said Matt Scheffel, an economist with Chmura Economics. "If we are able to target and provide economic support for a number of these industries it will allow for side-by-side growth for these industries and the rare earth metal industry to help keep job opportunities within the region."

Cracks in the wall

With permitting practically strangling new and existing mining operations, this has severely inhibited new raw materials to help offset the resource deficit we are facing.

With construction underway for the majority of facilities to recycle and reuse existing batteries, the timeline is pushed back even further.

With most FTA countries also scrambling for their own supplies, the U.S. must fight for scraps for possibly the first time in its short history, just like everyone else.

With outdated infrastructure to be replaced in tandem with developing EVs to gum up crumbling cities that then contribute to the emissions that are heating up the planet in the first place, it seems like every which way, this is a losing battle.

However, if there is one thing America has in its favor – it is waste. And when it comes to minerals critical to a high-tech and low-carbon future, one generation's waste is the next one's treasure.

Unconventional recovery of critical minerals could be considered a sibling or cousin to recycling but unique in that it is a term used for exploring new and out-of-the-box ways to obtain the resources needed for clean energy technologies.

These can be waste residue from fossil fuel and other industries (which could fall under recycling), that include mine tailings, refuse piles, acid mine drainage, fly ash, coal waste, and wastewater produced by oil and gas supply chains.

It can include the highly controversial deep-sea mining – a feasible frontier for manganese, cobalt, nickel, and REEs – marine-derived mining for lithium, and phytomining of native plants to extract or collect minerals from the sap, leaves, and/or fruits.

Space mining-not too dissimilar to conventional mining; however, it could be considered unconventional as it would be hundreds of thousands or even millions of miles away in space and within a vacuum.

Even the standard method of lithium brine or claystone extraction could fall into the unconventional category, as it has broken away from the long tradition of simply digging up the earth for resources.

Distracted by the problem, there are many who have sought solutions, and the creativity and ingenuity of humans shines brightest when it comes to solving problems.

Cleaning up

Tapping into the valuable prospect that various laws passed to fund critical minerals and metals, the Department of Energy has issued funding opportunity after funding opportunity to bolster any possible way to grow domestically produced resources.

From awards and grants to pleas for data and research, DOE has continued to push for a cleaner, greener future.

Through its Carbon Ore, Rare Earth, and Critical Minerals (CORE-CM) Initiative to supporting the Earth Mapping Resources (Earth MRI) Initiative by the United States Geological Survey, the Department of Energy sees potential and has taken advantage of federal money.

This has extended to start-ups, spin-offs, small businesses, large businesses, private and public research, you name it, seeking ways with interesting and viable technologies to maximize resource development and recovery.

From a $140 million REE separation facility to a $750 million advanced energy and recycling program, then a $335 million lithium-ion recycling program to $675 million for critical materials research and commercialization, DOE has been taking advantage of the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to rekindle industry in America, and it hopes to do so by capitalizing on clean energy.

As part of DOE, its Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management (FECM) has also been digging into its jurisdiction to extract resources from existing sources unconventionally.

Aiming to possibly clean up the wastewater from fossil fuel production, in February, FECM provided $17.5 million in funding for research and development projects focused on producing clean water and critical minerals from oil, gas, and coal production wastewater.

"Clean water is essential for the health and economic prosperity of our communities, but while demand from the energy sector for this vital resource has grown, aquifers in arid and semi-arid regions of the country have become depleted by drought conditions made worse by a warming climate," said Brad Crabtree, assistant secretary of DOE's Fossil Energy and Carbon Management. "By treating and reusing the large volumes of wastewater produced through fossil fuel production and use, these projects will help to make wastewater safe for the environment and a valuable resource for the American public, especially for water-stressed communities."

Furthermore, DOE announced $5.3 million in grants in December 2022 for five cutting-edge projects intended to advance research supporting the domestic production of rare earth elements and other critical minerals.

Under the purview of FECM, the agency tasked the National Energy Technology Laboratory to oversee the projects.

The projects would initially leverage the unique expertise of five DOE national labs to develop technologies that improve sensing and characterization of unconventional and secondary sources that contain rare earth elements and other critical minerals.

The selected national labs included:

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory received $1.2 million to develop a machine learning tool to identify hot zones for rare earths and critical minerals in mine tailings, particularly on coal and sulfide tailings.

Los Alamos National Laboratory received $1.2 million to work with partners at the Wyodak coal mine in Wyoming to develop a machine learning tool for mine-scale assessment of rare earths and critical minerals.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory received $1.2 million to develop a drone-based real-time artificial intelligence analysis survey technology to determine the quantity of critical minerals in coal, coal-related and energy-related waste streams.

Sandia National Laboratories received $1.2 million to assess the extractability of critical minerals, including rare earths, from major oil and gas shale formations across the US. Specifically, in-situ extractability of these metals using its newly developed extraction system.

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory received $500,000 to characterize critical minerals from energy production waste streams, from initial exploratory drill samples to final waste material after extraction.

With dozens of engagements to find critical minerals, metals, rare earths, from every possible source, it isn't that nothing is happening – news is just overshadowed by the arms race of EVs, so unconventional has fallen by the wayside.

Coal renewed

There is an almost subconscious belief that coal's role in American energy is finished – this couldn't be further from the truth. If for no other reason than coal deposits often have trace amounts of gallium, germanium, rare earths, and other minerals critical to the U.S.

While the concentrations of these high-tech metals are typically too low for economic recovery, burning the coal transforms trace quantities into potential ore – and more than a century of burning coal to generate affordable power has produced an estimated 2 billion tons of coal ash at various sites across the country.

"Coal ash is rich in rare earth elements, as rich as some of the ore deposits," said Linda Wang, a professor of chemical engineering at Purdue University. "The United States produces about 129 million tons of coal ash every year."

While this annual production of ash is expected to wane as America transitions to lower-carbon energy sources, over 100 years of coal-fired electrical generation has created billions of tons of this REE-enriched waste product – and if technologies that can maximize the economic value of extraction are developed, not only would it provide these desperate materials, but it would also clean up these waste sites.

Speckled all throughout the decades of coal mining along the Appalachian Mountains, "coal country," which has long dwindled into a shell of its former self, may see renewed life and industry as technologies develop that turn heaping black hills into recovery-ready stock.

After almost two years of study, researchers have presented optimistic results on Central Appalachia's potential to develop industries around the extraction and processing of rare earth elements and other critical minerals.

Covering a region that includes parts of Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky, where critical minerals and rare earths have been identified in the coal, as well as underlying rock, researchers from the Evolve Central Appalachia (Evolve APP) project funded by DOE has been working since 2021 to determine the historically coal-dependent area's potential.

Researchers ultimately found 10 coal seams in Southwest Virginia with significant amounts of critical minerals, with concentrations ranging widely from 8.4 to 165.7 parts per million. Comparatively, the highest concentrations of critical minerals in seams throughout Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia reached 250 ppm.

Danny Gray of Gray Energy Technologies found that coal ash in the region had an average concentration of critical minerals and rare earth elements that were 500 parts per million.

"We know that you got to handle more than 2,000 tons in order to get more than 1 ton," Gray said. "That presents material handling challenges."

Due to the region's coal mining history, most of the technology, transportation and other infrastructure needed for the extraction and processing of these resources is already in place but will, at the very least, require mine operators to learn a few new skills.

"The key takeaway here is the Central App region has a lot of the key building blocks that are necessary for future processing facilities," said Brian Hill of Crescent Resource Innovation, a financial consultant for the U.S. Department of Energy.

The challenge for workers accustomed to coal mine extraction processes will be learning how to handle multiple new materials, but if the prospect of a good-paying job is on the table, next to reigniting industry in their hometown, it can be reasonably assumed they'd make the effort.


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