Analysts Say Coal Industry Primed For Mining Material Used In Solar Panels

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Chris White Tech Reporter
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The coal industry can mine the kind of rare earth elements required for manufacturing the solar panel and green energy products that environmentalists believe could stave off manmade global warming, according to a Tuesday report from the Washington Examiner.

Coal producers want to harvest the kinds of rare metals used in smartphones, jets, wind turbines and other green energy projects, Paul Ziemkiewicz, an academic who is attempting to transition the coal industry into a source of raw materials, told reporters earlier this month. The U.S. imports most of these elements from China, a country with an abysmal environmental record.

“To the extent that the administration is interested in and regards national defense as a strong national priority, I would think that they are very interested in securing a secure supply of rare earth elements that don’t rely on China,” said Ziemkiewicz, who heads West Virginia University’s water research program.

Manufacturers imported more than half of the U.S.’ supply of 50 types of minerals in 2016, of which the country was 100 percent dependent on imports for 20 of them, including eight critical and rare earth minerals. China dominates the global supply chain, and Ziemkiewicz wants the country to start mining these elements from coal material.

He is working with the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory on a program to transition coal mines across Appalachia into processing hubs for various elements.

Ziemkiewicz has pinpointed a method called acid mine drainage, in which rare earth elements are selectively leached out of coal material “in addition to other stuff like iron and aluminum.” Acid rock drainage occurs when acidic water flows from coal and metal mines.

The Pittsburgh coal basin “extends from just north of Pittsburgh all the way down to Clarksburg, West Virginia,” he said. “And virtually all of that seam along the Monongahela River, and a lot of it along the Ohio River, has been mined out. So, you have all these interconnected mines full of acid mine drainage.”

Various reports have criticized China’s methods for mining graphite, one of the chief elements for producing lithium ion batteries for electric vehicles. A Washington Post report from last year, for instance, found that the country’s environmental regulations were abysmal, which helped keep production costs down but ultimately caused health problems for workers.

One couple living in Jixi, a city near the Russian border, told reporters that graphite dust covers their corn crop so much that simply walking outside leaves their faces blackened, according to the report. The dust also leaks into the couple’s house, infusing the food and water.

Inhaling the particulate matter causes respiratory troubles, according to health experts.

Tesla vehicles, and electric cars in general, are sold to consumers as environmentally friendly alternatives to fossil fuel burning vehicles. The report, which was published Oct. 2, indicates that the productive tools used to make their batteries is destructive.

The graphite in the mines is produced through a flaking process rather than in a kiln, which, according to the newspaper’s report, is less expensive, but is ultimately dirtier and more harmful to surrounding communities. Tesla has not divulged where it obtains the elements that go into their vehicles.

A typical electric car requires thousands of times the battery power than a small phone, tablet or laptop needs. Nearly 75 percent of the world’s graphite comes from the northeastern section of China.

Ziemkiewicz’s idea has received some support from at least one coal country, as Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia supports using coal mines to extract rare materials. He also thinks that the process can kill two birds with one stone: eliminating importing elements from China while also resuscitating the so-called Coal Country.

“Our increasing reliance on foreign sources of rare earth elements, also known as critical minerals, is a national security concern that must be addressed,” Manchin told reporters. “We can and should produce rare earth elements in West Virginia, instead of relying on China.”

Federal regulators are warming to the notion as well. Janet Gellici, the CEO for the National Coal Council, a top federal advisory board to Energy Secretary Rick Perry, noted that such an extraction method would help the Trump administration bring jobs back to the coal industry and satisfy elements of the environmental community.

“I think industry is getting more interested in that opportunity, as well,” she said. “It fits quite well with the administration’s interest in energy security and balance of trade.”

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