Rare Earth Elements: A Secondary Use for Mines

Environmental waste from coal mines and developing phones do not seem to be two related things, but in the past few years, scientists have discovered that coal is not the only resource that can be harvested from mines. Some have found value in collecting items called Rare Earth Elements or REE’s. These metals are best known for their use in cell phones.

Paul Ziemkiewicz is the director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute (WVWRI) at West Virginia University and a member of the West Virginia Acid Mine Drainage Task Force. Earlier this year, the university opened a new facility dedicated to retrieving RRE’s from acid mine drainage coming from coal mining.

“If you’ve ever seen an orange colored stream in the Appalachian region, that’s acid mine drainage,” Ziemkiewiczsaid.

Acid mine drainage is a metal-rich water created by chemical reactions from rocks and a major pollutant on its own.

“There’s really no way to stop that waste,” Ziemkiewicz said. “(The mines) accumulate water and that water is going to find its way out.”

But the drainage itself is not the area of concern. Instead, Ziemkiewicz has spent the last two years researching how to extract REE’s from sludge, a byproduct of treating acid mine drainage with an agent. Mining agencies are required to treat the water by law before “discharging” it into waters.

“The water has to be treated anyway,” he said. “In the process, you can recover some value, you can get something good.”

This sludge can be a concentrated area for REE’s, Ziemkiewicz said. It is often used to find elements like yttrium, cerium, promethium and lutetium. The WVU team found that this sludge produced 2,600 times as much RRE’s as the untreated acidemine drainage.

“Acid mine drainage, so to speak, is the gift that keeps on giving,” Ziemkiewicz said.

And that is because acid mine drainage does not seem to have any foretold expiration date. It does not create an incentive to keep inactive mines running, Ziemkiewicz said. In fact, acid mine drainage is a bigger threat to waters near abandoned mines.

“Some of our best sources of Rare Earth Elements come from mines that closed 30-40 years ago,” Ziemkiewicz said. “We have mines that produce acid mine drainage that closed down in 1920.”

But he does see it as an opportunity, even if those are not necessarily for coal miners.

“We see this as an opportunity to create jobs and give some point to it after these mines are shut down. It also incentivizes people to treat acid mine drainage,” he said.

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