Penn State to lead critical minerals consortium powered by $1.2 million from DOE

Matthew Carroll
May 06, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A region famous for the coal that once fueled a growing nation is now the focus of a $1.2 million project, led by Penn State researchers, aimed at establishing domestic supplies of critical minerals needed to produce modern technology from cell phones to fighter jets.

Penn State will lead the Consortium to Assess Northern Appalachia Resource Yield (CANARY) to assess and catalog northern Appalachian-basin critical mineral resources and waste streams; develop strategies to recover the materials from these streams; and identify potential supply-chain or technology gaps that will need to be addressed. The project, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, is part of a broader, national effort to produce rare-earth elements and critical minerals.

“Penn State has world-class faculty and facilities to help lead the effort to meet the country’s critical mineral needs,” said Lora Weiss, Penn State’s senior vice president for research. “This funding will allow the University and its consortium partners to further leverage our considerable technical resources and established relationships with stakeholders to realize the full potential value of our natural resources.”

Rare-earth elements are a group of metals considered critical because they are vital to a high-tech economy and needed for medical and defense applications and because they are produced almost entirely by foreign countries. China alone produces about 85% of the world’s supply.

The minerals are found in low concentrations in the ground and harvesting them comes at a high financial and environmental cost. However, coal and its waste products offer potential as an environmentally friendly and affordable source of the materials.

“CANARY will build on the prior work and current expertise of Penn State and its partners to evaluate the critical mineral production potential of the Northern Appalachian basin,” said Lee Kump, John Leone Dean in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. “Extracting critical minerals from coal waste has the potential to catalyze regional growth and create jobs while simultaneously remediating long-standing environmental problems, reclaiming abandoned mines, and helping the country meet its raw-material needs for future development of an advanced, technology-driven society.”

The two-year project will allow Penn State and its university and industrial partners to gain a fuller understanding of what resources are available in the region and how to best utilize them. To achieve this, CANARY will collaborate with U.S. and state Geological Surveys and state environmental agencies to review databases of historic mining and processing sites.

“We really don’t have a database or an assessment of what is out there and how much of our demand can be met with these secondary resources,” said Sarma Pisupati, professor of energy and mineral engineering at Penn State and director of the project. “That’s what’s missing. This is very crucial for industry to have a strategy for developing these resources and making them commercially extractable and available. We are very excited about this project.”

The project is one of 13 recently funded with $19 million from the DOE. CANARY focuses on the northern Appalachian basin, including much of Pennsylvania and parts of Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia.

“We have a lot of resources and waste streams because of our history of coal mining,” Pisupati said. “Our job is to help reclaim and remediate some of the environmental problems created by those waste streams while also producing valuable materials that are important in terms of national security. We are addressing three problems in one.”

Also collaborating on the project are the University of Kentucky, Virginia Tech and Colorado School of Mines, and industry partners including Tetra Tech, American Resources Corporation, Materia USA, Texas Mineral Resources Corp. and USA Rare Earths. Penn State and Colorado School of Mines also recently entered a memorandum of understanding related to critical minerals.

“We are excited to add to Penn State's rich history of mineral resource development with our project, identifying basinal carbon ore, rare earth element and critical mineral resources and key components of the supply chain and leading our consortium toward increased economic prosperity in the commonwealth, our region and the nation,” said Barbara Arnold, professor of practice in mining engineering at Penn State and managing director of CANARY.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated May 18, 2021