A pile of waste coal near Clinchco in Dickenson County. Photo courtesy of Frank Kilgore.

A research venture launched Wednesday will investigate whether Southwest Virginia’s vast supply of coal waste can be turned into high-value raw materials for products like cellphones and electric cars, addressing a need that has grown exponentially in recent years – and that has fueled concerns about the global supply chain.

But the goal of Evolve Central Appalachia – Evolve CAPP, for short – isn’t just to figure out how best to extract these materials from mining byproducts, said Michael Karmis, the recently retired director of the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research at Virginia Tech.

It’s to create the base for an entire industry sector – from mineral extraction to the manufacturing of computer chips or semiconductors – in the region.

“We don’t want to be exporting this stuff for other people to reap all the economic benefit,” Karmis said. “We want the entire value chain related to this to be located here.” 

Virginia Tech is leading the project, which has nearly 50 partners from across academia, economic development and industry. VCCER received $1.5 million in federal funding last year as part of a broader Department of Energy initiative to support the production of rare earth elements and critical minerals in traditional fossil fuel-producing areas. Thirteen projects across the U.S. received a total of $19 million; Evolve CAPP, which will be based at the Virginia Highlands Small Business Incubator in Abingdon, will focus on opportunities in the coalfields of central Appalachia.

Coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal for power generation, and the waste coal called gob (which is left over from mining) are two potential sources of the raw materials that are so in demand.

The rare earth elements are 17 metallic elements that are an essential part of high-tech devices such as cellphones, computer hard drives, weaponry – and electric vehicles and wind turbines, making them a key component in the push toward zero emissions.

Most rare earth elements aren’t actually all that rare; the U.S. Geological Survey calls them “relatively abundant,” although they can be difficult to mine.

Critical minerals, meanwhile, are true to their name: They have been deemed essential to the U.S. economy, have no viable substitutes, and face potential disruption in supply, according to the USGS. The list has changed over time and currently includes 50 minerals including aluminum, arsenic, cobalt and 16 of the 17 rare earth elements.

The search for ways to get rid of environmentally hazardous coal waste – or even to repurpose it – has been ongoing for decades. In recent years, it has dovetailed with a push to find new sources of rare earth elements and critical minerals, both to supply an ever-growing global demand and to reduce U.S. reliance on China, which has nearly cornered the market on both the raw materials and some of the components built from them.

According to a report by Global Market Insights, the rare earth metals market was estimated at $13.2 billion in 2019 and is expected to reach nearly $19.8 billion by 2026.

Between 2011 and 2017, China produced approximately 84% of the world’s rare earth elements, while U.S. production accounted for only 4%, the USGS reported. The U.S. imported $160 million in rare-earth compounds and metals in 2021, an increase of 47% over the prior year, according to USGS.

Even when the elements are mined in the U.S., they’re generally shipped overseas for processing before they’re sold back to U.S. buyers in more expensive products, the Department of Energy found.

Will Payne of InvestSWVA, one of the economic development partners in the project, said he believes the work of Evolve CAPP could help alleviate supply chain disruptions and make American companies major players in the manufacture of critical mineral-based components.

“If Southwestern Virginia can offer itself to the nation as a domestic sourcing center of critical minerals for manufacturing, it will help the U.S. avoid reliance upon nations that do not share our policy priorities or our legal structure,” he said in a statement.

The 13 projects funded by the recent $19 million round of Energy Department grants are part of a broader push to boost domestic production of these elements and minerals. Last month, the White House announced a slew of new efforts, including a $35 million Defense Department award to a California company that will separate and process heavy rare earth elements, a project to collect and recycle lithium-ion car batteries to extract rare elements, and a plan, still in the very early stages, to build a facility that would extract rare earth elements and critical minerals from mine waste.

Additionally, The Denver Post reported in February that the federal government plans to build a $240 million lab in Colorado that will focus in part on research into where these minerals can be found in underground rocks and old mining waste piles.

The growing emphasis on finding new sources of rare earth elements and critical minerals has come as people have realized that at the rate we’re consuming some of these materials, we’re going to run out, Karmis said.

“We need to pursue as many technologies as we can and look at every resource that can be a potential economic source for developing these minerals,” he said.

Work into how to extract these valuable materials from coal waste was underway at Virginia Tech and other research institutions well before Evolve CAPP was launched. Karmis said his team will be watching, and reviewing, the technologies coming out of other labs. Who knows, he said, where the best ideas will come from?

“This is a space where new technologies are coming at a very fast rate,” he said.

There are a few things that he knows already. The researchers will only consider methods that have significant positive environmental and social outcomes, he said; they don’t want to use methods that create more waste, or just move waste from one place to another. They don’t want to use a lot of water, and they want to use the smallest possible footprint.

They want to make the lab a place for STEM instruction. And they don’t want to end up with a demonstration-scale operation. At the end of the day, he said, they will need to be able to attract investors who will be willing to put hundreds of millions of dollars into commercial-scale operations in the region.

“We’re aiming at developing commercially possible opportunities, otherwise we’ll be left doing research forever,” said Karmis, who said he will continue to be involved with the project as long as he’s needed. “The government is not going to do that. We need to get the private sector doing that.”

The possibility of not only removing waste coal, but also turning it into something valuable, is what attracted the state to Karmis’ project, said Will Clear, deputy director of Virginia Energy.

The effort to clean up gob has been ongoing for two decades, he said, but it got a boost recently with additional money from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which will give Virginia $22.8 million in the first year of a 15-year funding plan.

And thanks to changes in project prioritization at the federal level, that money can now be used to deal with waste coal, he said.

“This allows us to clean up and remove a lot of this waste material,” Clear said. “This project, in conjunction with that money – we have the potential to really investigate further beyond even what Dr. Karmis is going to do and use some of those moneys potentially to jumpstart this process.”

Megan Schnabel is managing editor for Cardinal News. Reach her at megan@cardinalnews.org or 540-819-4969.