UND is receiving funds from the U.S. Department of Energy for a feasibility study to better understand rare earth elements involved in coal.

The $150,000 grant, which has an option for up to $2 million, will be applied towards an engineering-scale study of a commercial rare earth element and critical mineral extraction plant.

Rare earth elements include scandium, yttrium and the lanthanide series. Critical for national security, they are used in defense alloys, cell phones and more. Currently, the United States imports 100% of rare earth elements, mostly from China.

This grant will be used to generate conceptual designs to extract critical minerals and rare earth elements from coal, as well as coal by-product sources, to support the nation’s energy and electronics industries, according to a news release from Sen. John Hoeven’s office.

“This grant from DOE will support UND’s efforts to extract critical minerals from North Dakota’s abundant coal reserves, which will lessen our reliance on imports of rare earth elements and enhance our economic and national security,” Hoeven, R-N.D., said in the release.

WDAY logo
listen live
watch live
Newsletter signup for email alerts

UND will partner with DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory to advance this project.

“This is an important step towards eventually building REE extraction plants in North Dakota,” Michael Mann, executive director of the UND Institute for Energy Studies, said in an email. “This will involve detailed economics, discussion with equipment vendors on ideal equipment and price, and development of preliminary mining plans to recover the REE-rich coal. The study should also identify the next areas of research/improvement required to make a commercial plant a reality.”

Previous research has shown that the rare earth elements and critical minerals are bound in lignite -- North Dakota’s predominant coal -- uniquely in a way that makes recovery of the high-value materials easier than in minerals, according to Mann, adding that this allowed researchers to develop a slightly different process to recover these in a more environmentally friendly and cheaper way.

The new grant is focused on developing information needed to attract investors to build the first plant.

“We’re aiming our combined research on mitigating U.S. demand on the rare earths and other critical minerals by developing a domestic source, and accomplishing this in a relatively quick way (since coal mines are already open, and may be faster to permit),” Nolan Theaker, the lead researcher on the project, and Mann said in an email.

The two said new work will be critical in answering the questions relating to final commercial deployment, including whether North Dakota has a viable source of rare earth elements within the state’s lignite coal and whether the state is capable of building plants to augment coal revenue within the next few years.

“We think the answer to this question is yes, and this study will help us build investor confidence and come to the same conclusion,” Mann and Theaker said.

Last year, UND was awarded a $6.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and other project sponsors for similar work. That grant went to build a pilot plant that will extract rare earth elements from North Dakota lignite coal. The university has also received other awards in the past related to the rare earth elements.