U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D) stopped by the Penn State Center for Critical Minerals on Thursday to highlight the federal funds they received to further develop a “novel” technique to recover rare earth elements from acid mine drainage.
Douglas Braff toured the lab, speaking with Casey, students, and faculty about the potential.
Rare earth elements are critical to a wide scope of technologies: ranging from devices as big as electric cars, to those as small as smartphones. However, amid growing tensions between the United States and China in the tech sector, access to rare earth elements has become key.
“This is about the economy of our commonwealth, and our country, This is also about our national security.”
This project received $2.1 million through the FY 2023 funding bill passed in December, along with over $100 million going to other projects across Pennsylvania.
Something Penn State University officials touched upon like Center’s director, Sarma Pisupati is that Pennsylvania has “many existing environmental and energy waste resources, due to past coal mining activities.”
“There are 220 million tons of identified coal refuse, over 2,400 miles of Pennsylvania streams that do not meet water quality standards, due to acid mine drainage from Pennsylvania’s legacy coal mine communities, These resources have lot of critical minerals the country heavily relies on and imports today for a sustainable energy future.”
“The problem is that there is few primary resources of critical element including cobalt, manganese in the U.S.”
Now they can extract those critical elements from acid mine drainage.
As for the actual process, one of the project’s faculty leaders tells us its novelty lies in its simplicity.
Faculty of Energy and Mineral Engineering at Penn State
“We modify the acid mine drain treatment process in a way that, while treating for the environmental compliance, we can selectively recover multiple critical elements that are essential for the new technology and clean energy transition as well,”
The dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Penn State, Lee Kump, tells us there is a stakeholder group of industries across the commonwealth and the country interested in commercializing this technology that Penn State is developing.
“The federal investment in this project now, is just to take the risk down a little bit so that the industries that are waiting to take advantage of this can feel comfortable about taking this to the plant scale,”
President Joe Biden signed the “CHIPS and Science Act” into law last August, which allocated about $280 billion for boosting the research and domestic manufacturing of semi-conductors. All of this was done primarily with the goal of competing against China, since semi-conductors are vital to U.S. national security.
“I think it’s a very similar— a very similar theme that we cannot allow other countries, especially China, to dominate the, the marketplace or in this case, the have control of those rare earth minerals,” he replies. “We’ve gotta take action.”
Casey continues: “And legislative action is one area for progress. But, having a research university like Penn State be the university that has this, this kind of a novel process, which will give us that advantage in economic advantage and environmental advantage as well as the National Security Advantage, is, is really inspiring to see.”