Coal Ash to Cold Cash?

There's gold in them thar ponds! Well, not gold, but rare earth elements.

There’s gold in them thar ponds! Well, not gold, but rare earth elements.

by James A. Bacon

A Duke University study of coal ash has found that the mineral residue from coal combustion contains high concentrations of valuable rare-earth elements neodymium, europium, terbium, dysprosium, yttrium and erbium used in uses as varied as cell phones, rechargeable batteries, fluorescent lighting, air pollution controls, and night-vision goggles.

Demand for the exotic elements has exploded in recent years. While no rarer than metals such as chromium, nickel or zinc in the earth’s surface, they are rarely found in extractable concentrations. In 2010 China, which produced 95% of the world’s supply of rare earth elements, restricted exports, sending prices shooting higher and prompting a search for alternate sources of supply.

“The Department of Energy is investing $20 million into research on extraction technologies for coal wastes, and there is literally billions of dollars’ worth of rare earth elements contained in our nation’s coal ash,” said Heileen Hsu-Kim, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Duke, as quoted in Science Daily.

Researchers studied coal ash samples from power plants located mostly in the Midwest that burn coal sources from all over the country. Analysis showed that ash collected from the Appalachian Mountains has the highest concentration of rare earth elements at 591 parts per billion. However, Appalachian ash is harder to extract, perhaps because it is more likely to be encapsulated within a glassy matrix of aluminum silicates.

“The reagents we used are probably too expensive to use on an industrial scale, but there are many similar chemicals,” said Hsu-Kim. “The trick will be exploring our options and developing technologies to drive the costs down. That way we can tap into this vast resource that is currently just sitting around in disposal ponds.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The next big environmental debate over coal ash is over how to dispose of the ash once it is de-watered. Dominion Virginia Power and many other power companies say it is cheaper to consolidate the material in compounds capped to prevent rainwater from percolating through. But environmentalists would like to see the coal ash disposed in landfills with heavy plastic lining that eliminates any risk of groundwater contamination.

Will the Duke University finding change power company calculations? If a given power station’s coal ash potentially contained a hundred million dollars worth of rare earth metals, would a power company be more likely to hang on to the material for future extraction? Who knows — the world works in strange and unpredictable ways.

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9 responses to “Coal Ash to Cold Cash?

  1. Of course one might ask why Dominion and the free market don’t see the opportunity to capitalize on themselves without the govt having to subsidize the research.

    Bacon’s Alter Ego Bottom Line – subsidized Govt-sponsored research vs the free market – is a “good” thing for coal ash but a bad thing for renewables, eh?

  2. Actually EPA said coal ash can be capped without a liner, in their recent coal ash directive.

    DEQ is free to adopt more stringent rules if needed, so that’s why DEQ under pressure from environmental groups.

  3. Think what a PR coup it would be if Dominion said ” we’re going to recycle it , make money at recycling it – and then donate the land for a park or other public purpose.

    Why is the bar always set so low so that they have to say – ” we complied with all requirements”?

    Personally, I’d rather see Dominion become a LEADER on the issue, quiet the critics – and reap the improved image and reputation with the public.

  4. Not another Mt. Ashmore?
    …that would be the “Virginia way”!

  5. how about “capping” the coal ash pits with solar panels that power the monitoring wells and feed the excess into the grid?

    There are a ton of REAL – PR opportunities for Dominion to well exploit on many of these issues but it almost seems as if they prefer to go out of their way to turn it into a controversy!

    Got a problem at Possum Point? Au Contraire. Just announce you are going to turn it into a utility-grade solar project and it effectively “caps” the coal ash. WIN-WIN-WIN!

    • Super idea! If we can get methane for electricity generation out of our Mt. Trashmores, why not design our Mt. Ashmores to support solar panels for electricity generation? It would be easy to design these mini-mountains to carry the panels at the optimal fixed angles and set above the surrounding tree lines — and the sites would already be utility-owned.

  6. even if the whole deal was largely inconsequential in terms of financials or amount of electricity generated – it would do two things: 1. CAP the coal ash pit and 2. clearly show that Dominion wants to do the right things… and seizes opportunities to do so.

    they’d still take heat from critics but the wider public would see some “shine”.

    I dunno who Dominion is paying for PR – but they’re not getting their money’s worth!

  7. Actually makes sense to convert this messed up space to solar.

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