Four takeaways from Southwest Virginia’s critical mineral investigation

U.S. Department of Energy-funded initiative presents update on research in Central Appalachia

By: - August 8, 2023 12:02 am

Big Stone Gap, Va., a historically coal-dependent town in Wise County. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

Nearly a dozen researchers struck an optimistic tone in West Virginia last week when presenting the results of almost two years of study on whether Central Appalachia could develop industries around the extraction and processing of critical minerals and rare earth elements.

Critical minerals and rare earth elements are substances like lithium, nickel and cobalt that are tapped for a wide array of military and economic uses, including a growing number of renewable energy technologies such as batteries.

Today, however, China controls roughly one-third of the global market for critical minerals and rare earth elements, said Matt Scheffel, an economist with Chmura Economics. One company, China Northern Rare Earth Group, generated about $30 billion in revenue in 2021, he said.

Researchers eye coal ash as a possible source of critical minerals — and Southwest Virginia jobs

As the U.S. ramps up its investment in renewables, policymakers have increasingly become concerned about reliance on China and have looked to develop domestic extraction and processing industries. Recent legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act requires that companies obtain critical minerals used in electric vehicle batteries from U.S. sources in order to take advantage of federal EV tax credits. And a recent executive order by President Joe Biden aims to create a domestic supply chain for critical minerals. 

Companies are responding to the demand. U.S. Mountain Pass Mine, owned by MP Materials, has announced plans to build a rare earth element processing facility in the U.S. and explore a rare earth mine in Texas.

“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,” Scheffel said. “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.”

In Central Appalachia, a region that includes parts of Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky, researchers have been working through the Evolve Central Appalachia project since 2021 to determine what potential the industries have for the historically coal-dependent area.  

The initiative, known as Evolve CAPP, began in October 2021 with an initial $1.5 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy. It has since received an additional $500,000 to continue its work.

On Friday, Evolve CAPP researchers presented what they have found out so far. Here’s four takeaways from their presentation.

The minerals are there, if you can find them

In Central Appalachia, critical minerals and rare earth elements can be found in both mined coal as well as rock.

Researchers reviewed state and federal mining permits, information from the National Energy Technical Lab and U.S. Geological Survey, and utility records on coal ash — a type of waste produced when coal is burned to generate electricity — to identify where and in what concentrations critical minerals and rare earth elements exist.

They ultimately found 10 seams in Southwest Virginia with significant amounts of critical minerals, with concentrations ranging from 8.41 to 165.73 parts per million. Comparatively, the highest concentrations of critical minerals in seams in Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia were 189.56, 164.10 and 247.86 parts per million, respectively.

Sampling found the highest concentrations in non-coal sources, said Scott Peterson, senior principal geologist at engineering firm Marshall, Miller & Associates.  

“It really shows that the higher values are within a rock, versus the coal,” Peterson said.

Potential also lies within coal ash, said Danny Gray of Gray Energy Technologies. 

Because pollution control technologies capture coal ash in a granular, crushed state, they can provide simpler access to the critical minerals and rare earth elements found within it, Gray said. His company found that coal ash in the region had an average concentration of critical minerals and rare earth elements that was 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.”

Technology to extract resources already exists

The technology needed to extract critical minerals and rare earth elements from coal seams and rock already exists within mines, but it will require operators to shift how they work. 

Researchers outlined several approaches to extraction: drilling, chemical processes and physical processes.

Steve Schafrik, director of graduate studies in mining engineering at the University of Kentucky, said critical minerals and rare earth elements can be extracted by blasting and drilling, although workers will need to know how to access them without damaging them.  

Some drills can sense when materials other than coal are being cut, so that “we can be hitting areas that are of the highest value for us, so you’re taking less material but you’re taking more valuable less material,” Schafrik said.

For workers accustomed to extraction from coal mines, Schafrik said the challenge will be learning how to “handle two different materials.”

Chemical approaches, such as the use of sulfuric acid, can also be used to separate elements and minerals from coal or coal byproducts, according to research from West Virginia University.

Magnetic separation of material is yet another way to access resources, one that may have low costs but also yield small results, said Wencai Zhang, assistant professor of the Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering at Virginia Tech. Often, physically separated mineral concentrations must be further dissolved in chemicals to access the critical minerals and rare earth elements, he said.

“If you want to achieve individually separated rare earths, you must combine technologies,” Zhang said.

Transportation and other infrastructure needed for processing is already in place

Due to its coal mining history, Central Appalachia already has much of the transportation  infrastructure needed for larger-scale processing of critical minerals and rare earths.

The best method is “source and sink” matching, an approach that keeps piles of minerals as close to processing sites as possible to decrease logistic concerns, said Brian Hill of Crescent Resource Innovation, a financial consultant for the U.S. Department of Energy. 

While renewable energy is growing in the area to meet the energy supply demands of processing, operators currently rely on natural gas, said Hill. Processors could draw on ponds previously designated for coal ash as water sources to avoid drawing on raw or potable resources, he added, while recent investments from the federal government are expanding broadband access.

“The key takeaway here is the Central App(alachian) region has a lot of the key building blocks that are necessary for future processing facilities,” Hill said.

Educational training is available, but attainment is ‘low’

The 24 community colleges in the region have already put some programs in place to support the extraction and processing industries, researchers found.

Scheffel said degrees and certifications in relevant electrical, welding, diesel, industrial and mechanical technicians are currently being offered.

A large pool of workers may also be available. Vickie Ratliff, interim vice president of Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap, said Central Appalachia’s labor market participation rate is 49%, compared to 68% for the nation. And while the coal, oil and power sectors currently employ roughly 22,000 people, many with high salaries, Ratliff said the number of workers is projected to drop more than 3% every year for the next 10 years. 

However, only about 26% of 25- to 64-year-olds in the region have attained an associate’s, bachelor’s or postgraduate degree, Ratliff said. About 20% have some college or no degree.

“When you compare all of these numbers to the U.S. numbers, we’re extremely low,” Ratliff said. “So we got some work to do.”


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Charlie Paullin
Charlie Paullin

Charles Paullin covers energy and environment for the Mercury. He previously worked for Northern Virginia Daily in the Northern Shenandoah Valley and for the New Britain Herald in central Connecticut. An Alexandria native, Charles graduated from the University of Hartford initially wanting to cover sports. He's received several Virginia Press Association awards for his coverage of crime, local government and state politics.