A project that aims to identify Central Appalachian sources of rare earth elements and critical minerals has received $500,000 in federal funding to continue for another six months.
The 17 rare earth elements — so called not because they’re uncommon, per se, but because they typically occur in such low concentrations that easily extracted deposits are rare — include scandium, yttrium and a group of 15 elements collectively called the lanthanides. The 50 critical minerals identified as such by the U.S. Geological Survey are considered essential to the economy and have no viable substitutes; they include aluminum, cobalt, graphite, lithium, nickel and nearly all of the rare earth elements.
These elements and minerals are necessary for a variety of technological applications from batteries and magnets to electric cars and smartphones. The team behind Evolve Central Appalachia — or Evolve CAPP — hopes sources such as waste coal from mining operations, fly ash from coal-fired power plants or underground water brought to the surface by oil and gas wells could yield such valuable materials.
“We know we have them in certain concentrations in our backyard,” Richard Bishop, a professor of practice in Virginia Tech’s Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering and the principal investigator of the Evolve CAPP project, said during a project update meeting Friday in Julian, West Virginia.
“But we need to work on the technology and the identification to know exactly where we should go after first if we want to start extraction of these, or recovery of these minerals, and also uses here in the United States for those products.”
Friday’s meeting featured nearly a dozen speakers on topics including technical aspects of finding, extracting and processing rare earth elements and critical minerals; the economic potential of developing a rare earth elements industry in Central Appalachia; and the challenges of providing the education and skills necessary to develop a workforce in such an industry.
Evolve CAPP kicked off in October 2021, backed by nearly $1.6 million in U.S. Department of Energy funding. It originally was scheduled to run until Sept. 30 of this year, but the new half-million dollars the Energy Department awarded in July will give researchers through the end of March 2024 to collect and analyze more samples as they seek the best sources for the coveted elements and minerals.
“We’re collaborating with industry partners and others to identify specific sampling areas,” said Scott Peterson, senior principal geologist with the engineering firm Marshall Miller & Associates.
Among those represented on the Virginia Tech-led project’s research team are the University of Kentucky, West Virginia University, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the USGS, Richmond-based Chmura Economics, the Virginia Department of Energy and a multistate community college coalition headed by Mountain Empire Community College.
The project area covers more than 80 localities across Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. In Southwest Virginia, the project touches the counties of Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Tazewell and Wise, and the city of Norton.
The region has a lower-than-average labor force participation rate and higher-than-average rates of disability and poverty, said Vickie Ratliff of Mountain Empire Community College.
Health care, social assistance and retail are among the larger employment sectors in the region, and developing a skilled workforce that could potentially fill the jobs created by a growing rare earths sector comes with challenges, Ratliff said. While coal and oil jobs currently command relatively high wages there, the number of those jobs is projected to decrease in the coming years.
“Whatever we’re doing here to prepare a new industry related to the rare earth minerals, we need to figure out how to pull these folks into those categories,” she said.
Evolve CAPP’s priorities also include sourcing the materials in environmentally sustainable ways and ensuring that the work’s impact on local communities is equitable and responsible, Bishop said.
Domestic sourcing of such materials is also a geopolitical issue as a majority of global rare earths production currently comes from China. Recent congressional acts, federal funding awards and presidential executive orders have focused on ramping up U.S. production.
“I think we’re all quite aware of the green revolution underway, the transition to solar panels, wind farms,” Bishop said. “Those require minerals that we have here in Central Appalachia.”