You are here

Remarks of Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy Steven Winberg as prepared 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, 2019.

 

Good morning.

 

I want to thank all of you for taking the time out of your busy schedules to be here and to participate in this workshop. 

 

Let me start by thanking USEA for hosting and helping to organize the meeting today.

 

I want to welcome Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia. 

 

Senator Manchin has been a steadfast supporter of our National Energy Technology Laboratory – or NETL – and the work we’re doing to address the challenges to coal – and our efforts to develop a domestic supply of rare earth elements and other critical minerals from that vast resource.

 

We’re also fortunate to be joined today by Congressmen David McKinley from West Virginia and Glen Thompson from Pennsylvania, who have been strong supporters of NETL’s work, including our rare earth and critical mineral R&D.

 

We appreciate this strong bipartisan congressional support for our efforts to expand coal’s potential, and we look forward to hearing your perspectives later this morning.

 

Thank you to my colleagues from the Office of Fossil Energy and our National Energy Technology Laboratory, as well as our colleagues from the Department of Defense, for taking part in this workshop. 

 

And thanks to those of you from academia for participating in the discussions today.  You bring indispensable resources to bear on our understanding of the critical minerals and on the research and development we’re doing on these resources – and some of you here today are already collaborating with us on that work. 

       

Welcome to our friends from industry, some of whom are also leading important critical minerals R&D.  As much as anyone, you recognize the critical need – and the opportunities – we’re facing with regard to critical minerals, including rare earth elements.  And your resources and contributions are key to our effort to secure a supply of U.S. rare earth elements and other critical minerals.

 

So, to all our partners and stakeholders here today, thank you for your contributions.  We couldn’t be where we are without your commitment and your help – and we will continue to need both as we go forward.  That’s why this workshop is so important. 

 

We welcome – and need – your input today, and as we work to develop an economically competitive and sustainable domestic supply of critical minerals –including rare earth elements – from coal and coal by-products.

 

It used to be that we didn’t really give much thought to rare earth elements and other critical minerals.  In the 1970s, for instance, rare earth elements weren’t widely needed outside of a few specialty, niche areas.  And the relatively small demand for them was met mainly by production here in America.

 

Fast forward to 2019 – everything has changed.  As everyone in this room knows, rare earth elements, and the other 34 minerals designated as critical by the Department of the Interior, are now integral to the way we live – and to America’s economic growth and our 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.

 

Our reliance today on imports from China and other foreign sources for these resources is neither wise nor sustainable.

 

There have been efforts by industry and the government to address this challenge and to move us away from dependence on foreign sources of critical minerals.  For our part, the Department of Energy has been carrying out important research and development on critical minerals.  There’s EERE’s work on critical materials and, of course, FE’s work with our university and industry partners to develop rare earth elements and other critical minerals from coal and coal by-products. 

 

But the challenge we’re facing requires all hands on deck.  We – all of us – need to do more.  For the private sector, that means increased domestic exploration, production, recycling, and reprocessing of critical minerals.  And, the federal government needs to do more to expedite and enable exploration, mining, concentration, separation, alloying, recycling, and reprocessing of critical minerals.  

 

So, ultimately, what’s needed is a coordinated strategy that aligns agencies across the government – and harnesses the ingenuity and entrepreneurship of the private sector – to secure a reliable domestic supply of critical minerals and critical materials.

 

In December of 2017, the President issued an Executive Order to do just that. 

 

For the first time, we now have a Federal Strategy on critical minerals that identifies six explicit Calls to Action.  These include:

 

Advancing transformational RD&D across critical mineral supply chains;
Strengthening those supply chains and defense industrial base;
Enhancing international trade and cooperation on critical minerals;
Improving our understanding of domestic critical mineral resources;
Improving our access to domestic critical mineral resources on federal lands and reducing the timeframes for federal permitting; and
Growing our domestic critical minerals workforce.

 

Various agencies have ownership – and are responsible for the deliverables – of each Call to Action.  The Department of Energy is in the lead on Call to Action 1, focused on transformational RD&D; and we contribute to other Calls to Action. 

 

We also co-chair the National Science and Technology Council Subcommittee on Critical Minerals, which is responsible for implementation of the Federal Strategy.  The Subcommittee also provides leadership among the federal agencies to address critical minerals across the entire supply chain.

 

The Department of Energy’s approach to this effort is threefold: diversifying supply, developing substitutes, and driving reuse, recycling, and more efficient use of critical minerals.

 

Across the Department, R&D investments have been made in alignment with these three pillars and the President’s Executive Order.  To diversify supply, which is the focus of FE’s R&D, we need to continue research and development to identify and extract rare earths and other critical materials from previously untapped sources.

 

The good news is that our vast coal resources – the largest coal reserves in the world – are an extremely promising source of rare earth elements and other critical minerals here in the U.S. 

 

In fact, we’ve already found that recoverable coal reserves in coal basins in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia could produce nearly 5 million metric tons of REEs.  And our initial assessments estimate that coal deposits in western state basins in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado, could produce 6 million metric tons of REEs. 

 

And there could be several million additional tons of REEs available in coal ash and coal mine refuse. 

 

So, we know the resources are there.  The challenge, of course, is that extracting, separating, and processing them is difficult, and new technologies are needed to help us 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. 

 

We’ll get a deeper dive on this R&D later in the workshop, but I’d like to highlight our research and development focus areas and some of our successes so far. 

 

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.  We’re currently focused on three core technology areas.

 

First, we’re pursuing enabling technologies to help us identify resources; conduct field samples and characterization; develop techno-economic analyses; and develop sensors to confirm concentrations of critical minerals. 

 

We’re also assessing the potential of using currently available extraction and separation technologies that were developed for other applications to extract and separate critical minerals, including rare earths, from coal-based materials.

 

And we’re focused on process systems at both bench scale and small pilot scale to help validate the capability of producing those critical minerals from coal-based resources.

 

To date, we’ve developed new processes to concentrate and extract REEs from coal-based materials, and then separate them into salable products. 

 

A good example is the facility we commissioned last summer at West Virginia University to extract rare earths from acid mine drainage, or AMD.  The amount of rare earths found in acid mine drainage in Pennsylvania and West Virginia alone could contain anywhere from 610 to 2,700 tons of REEs — which could help supply the approximately 800 tons per year needed by the U.S. defense industry.

 

So, this project represents a promising step toward meeting that critical need, as nearly 100 percent of the rare earths can be removed from AMD resources.

 

A pilot-scale project at the University of Kentucky achieved greater than 80 percent REE concentration at greater than 75 percent REE recovery from coal preparation plant refuse.  They’re now going to integrate and test new technologies and circuits that will significantly reduce the cost of producing rare earth oxide mixes, cobalt, and manganese.

 

And a second pilot-plant in Sharon, PA, built by Physical Sciences Inc., and Winner Water Services, will produce small quantities of rare earth elements by the end of next month, using fly ash as their feedstock material.

 

NETL's Research and Innovation Center, or RIC, has identified REE-enriched zones in or adjacent to coal seams in the Powder River Basin, offering a promising opportunity for targeted mining operations.  RIC's researchers are continuing to build on their success for extracting rare earths from coal materials that are often discarded, as well as using their solid sorbents for REE capture from acid mine drainage fluids.

 

We're also working with other National Labs – including Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Idaho – on efforts to selectively separate rare earths from coal-based materials using microbial systems.  

 

And we have a number of other bench- and pilot-scale projects focused on rare earth recovery and production.  At the same time, new technologies developed by industry are being tested at small scale to determine their usefulness in producing critical minerals – including rare earth elements – from coal by-products. 

 

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. 

 

But long-term opportunities to economically recover rare earths and critical minerals from coal and coal-based resources depend not only on validating near-term technical and economic feasibility, but also on leveraging the knowledge gained to develop novel recovery concepts that can be applied to low REE concentration feedstock materials. 

 

Our R&D is providing the valuable lessons learned and an expanding knowledge base that will help lead the way to recovering critical minerals from coal.  But we have to take the next steps, and going forward we will need to focus on:

Process optimization and efficiency improvements;
Process scale up and increased production capabilities;
Demonstrating economic feasibility;
Assessing the availability of resources;
Improving process feedstock flexibility; and
The co-production of critical minerals.

 

So, we have a lot of work ahead of us, and we’ll be successful to the extent that we work in coordination with you.

 

This workshop is an important step in that engagement.  And our objective today is to take a hard look at the challenges to developing critical minerals and rare earth resources from coal. 

 

Folks, we have a challenging but realistic task.  And we’ll continue to need the help of the other stakeholders in this room. 

 

So, we welcome your contributions today – and we particularly look forward to hearing from our next speaker, Adele Ratcliff, Director of the Industrial Base Analysis and Sustainment – or IBAS – Program at the Department of Defense.  

 

The IBAS program is dedicated to ensuring that DoD is positioned to effectively and efficiently address industrial base issues – particularly when it comes defense manufacturing capabilities and resources.

 

As the director of the IBAS program, Ms. Ratcliff is focused on building strong interagency partnerships to address broad manufacturing issues – the kinds of interagency collaboration that is essential to the President’s Federal Strategy on Critical Minerals.

 

Ms. Ratcliff has had an extensive and successful career in acquisition, and in 2013 she received the Secretary of Defense Award for excellence for her support of the Pilot Institute for Additive Manufacturing. 

 

So, Ms. Ratcliff, welcome.  We look forward to hearing your perspectives this morning.