Researchers Look At Producing Rare Elements From N.D. Coal

GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) — Researchers are looking at whether it might be possible to recover some of the rare elements used to make magnets for electric motors and cell phones, batteries and other high-tech products from North Dakota's coal seams.

It's already been proven that some rare earth elements such as neodymium and lanthanum and other critical minerals can be found in the state's coal, but it's not clear whether there is enough of those elements to make it economical to produce them.

So The Bismarck Tribune reports that a group from the University of North Dakota's Energy and Environmental Research Center will spend the next year looking at the possibility as part of a $2.45 million project. The effort received federal and state grants and financial support from several coal mining companies and operators of coal power plants.

“A lot of these materials are more abundant on earth than gold,” one of the researchers John Kay said. “What makes them rare is wherever you find them, they are not in very high concentration. It makes it difficult to extract them in any quantity.”

One of the things that's hardest to predict is the future price of these elements because so few of them are produced that prices can be volatile. Plus, it's hard to predict whether a new use may be developed for one of the elements that could lead to a surge in demand.

Currently most of the world's supply of rare earth elements comes from China.

Being able to also produce rare earth elements would help coal mining companies which face competition from natural gas and concerns about how burning the fuel produces greenhouse gases and contributes to climate change.