WVU awarded $5 million to continue rare earth project, build acid mine drainage treatment facility


MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The West Virginia Water Research Institute at West Virginia University has been awarded $5 million by the U.S. Department of Energy to scale up its Rare Earth Recovery Project, which will include building a facility at a new acid mine drainage treatment plant near Mount Storm.

The funding received the full support of West Virginia’s five congressional delegates and will help continue ongoing research of the project, which began with a pilot plant in 2018.

Rare earth elements are used to power everything from smartphones to the nation’s missile guidance system, and they come from acid mine drainage sludge in Appalachia.

With the new funding, the WVWRI will partner with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Special Reclamation to design and build the plant, Rockwell Automation to provide sensor and control technology, and TenCate Corporation to engineer materials for rare earth element extraction. 

“This is a great opportunity to demonstrate the economics and environmental benefits of combining AMD treatment, watershed restoration and critical mineral recovery,” said Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the WVWRI. “The team has worked together for the past several years and we are poised to move rapidly toward commercial development.”

Rare earth metals consist of the 17 chemically similar elements at the bottom of the periodic table, such as cerium and scandium. They’re often found in other minerals, within the earth’s crust or in coal and coal byproducts.  

Ziemkiewicz initially helped jumpstart the project by examining 120 acid mine drainage treatment sites throughout West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Ohio. His team found that acid mine drainage could produce up to 2,200 tons of rare earth elements per year in those states. 

In 2018, with National Energy Technology Laboratory funding, a bench scale pilot plant was opened through a collaboration with Rockwell Automation and Shonk Investments LLC on WVU’s campus to test the technical and economic feasibility of extraction and refining technology, with an eye to rapid commercialization.

“AMD treatment is an environmental obligation,” Ziemkiewicz said. “But it could turn into a revenue stream and create economic opportunity.”

“The WVDEP fully supports WVWRI’s efforts in developing a new way to treat AMD,” said Mike Sheehan, deputy director of the Division of Land Reclamation at the West Virginia DEP. “The extraction of REE could serve as a potential revenue source that could offset some of OSR’s treatment cost.” 

Collaborations with various groups and elected officials have been vital to the success of the project.

“One of my main priorities as Ranking Member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is to support and promote advancements in clean coal energy technologies,” said Sen. Joe Manchin. “I am thrilled to see the Department of Energy recognize the world-class research conducted at WVU. These projects allow continued use of our domestic resources in an environmentally friendly way and will help reduce our vulnerability to foreign sources of rare earth elements.”

About 15,000 tons of rare earth elements are used annually in the U.S., although the country imports nearly all of them. China produces nearly 83 percent of the world’s rare earth elements used in modern technologies such as phones, batteries, TVs and medical and defense applications.  

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