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The U.S. Department of Energy’s Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy (ASFE) Steven Winberg spoke at the United States Energy Association’s workshop on Rare Earth Elements and Critical Mineral Production from Domestic Coal-Based Resources in Washington, D.C. on December 11. 

The objective of this workshop was to identify and discuss how to build a pilot-to-commercial-size facility specifically designed for rare earth element (REE) extraction, separation, and recovery from domestic coal feedstock.

During his opening remarks, ASFE Winberg addressed the Department’s efforts to develop a domestic supply of REEs and other critical minerals from coal.

He explained that in the 1970s, REEs were not widely needed outside of a few specialty areas, and the relatively small demand for them was met through production in America. Fast forward to 2019, everything has changed.

REEs and the other 34 minerals designated as critical by the Department of the Interior are integral to the way people live and to America’s economic growth and national security.

“While we were once able to produce the bulk of critical minerals the United States needed, today, we’re 100 percent reliant on imports for 14 out of 35 critical minerals, and half of the supply for 15 other critical minerals comes from imports,” said ASFE Winberg in his remarks. “Our reliance on imports from China and other foreign sources for these resources is neither wise nor sustainable.”

He noted that government and industry have taken steps to address this challenge and to move the United States away from the dependence on foreign sources of critical materials, but accomplishing this goal requires an all-hands-on-deck approach.

“We—all of us—need to do more. For the private sector, that means increased domestic exploration, production, recycling, and reprocessing of critical minerals,” explained ASFE Winberg in his prepared remarks. “And, the federal government needs to do more to expedite and enable exploration, mining, concentration, separation, alloying, recycling, and reprocessing of critical minerals.”

The vast U.S. coal reserves are a very promising source of REEs and other critical materials. The primary challenge is in extracting, separating, and processing these resources, and the industry needs new technologies to take advantage of this tremendous potential.

“And, that’s where the Office of Fossil Energy’s critical minerals research and development program comes in. To date, we’ve invested nearly $80 million to move this effort forward—and we’ve had many important successes,” said ASFE Winberg. “Our ultimate goal is to validate the commercial domestic production of critical minerals, including rare earths, from coal and coal by-products in the 2030 to 2035 timeframe.”

ASFE Winberg continued to highlight advancements made through the Office of Fossil Energy’s (FE) collaboration with the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) and other National Laboratories to selectively separate rare earths from coal-based materials. For example, NETL’s Research and Innovation Center identified REE-enriched zones in or adjacent to coal seams in the Powder River Basin, offering a promising opportunity for targeted mining operations.

“All of these projects are moving the ball down the field to develop a reliable domestic supply of rare earths and other critical minerals—and they will have enormous positive ramifications for America’s economic growth and our national security,” added ASFE Winberg.

Joining ASFE Winberg at the workshop, Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Clean Coal and Carbon Management Lou Hrkman presented during the Overview of the U.S. Department of Energy’s REE and Critical Materials session. And, Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Clean Coal and Carbon Management Angelos Kokkinos led the Charter for the Group session.

Senator Joe Manchin, West Virginia; Representative Glenn Thompson, Pennsylvania; and Representative David McKinley, West Virginia also gave their perspectives at the Importance of a Domestic REE Industry session.

ASFE Winberg’s prepared remarks are available on the FE website, and FE’s REE web page provides more details about FE’s efforts in this area.