Business, Community, Energy, Latest News

Research looks at extracting rare earth elements from acid mine drainage sites

Take a look at your smartphone — and not just the hairline-crack in the screen from where you dropped it in the driveway two weeks ago.

Then ask yourself this question: What does that (slightly damaged) device, assembled in China, have to do with acid mine drainage in West Virginia?

The short answer, as it turns out, is everything.

Or, it could be everything.

At least $5 million worth of everything, for now.

That’s why the West Virginia Water Research Institute at WVU is now dialed-in with Extreme Endeavors, an environmental tech company from Philippi, Barbour County.

Even if you can’t casually gab about gadolinium or wax professorial about praseodymium, you still make their elemental connections daily without even realizing it.

Same for yttrium — even if you don’t necessarily know what that is, either.

The above three rare earth elements are hidden in your smartphone, and everyone else’s, also.

They are among 17 such designated geographic constituents residing on the bottom row of the Periodic Table of Elements.

Despite the handle, they really aren’t rare at all. They just have a way of making an entrance.

 Rare repurposing

Rare earth elements are used in the manufacture of a host of products, particularly high-tech ones.

The blue and green hues in your smartphone display, for example, when you open a weather app.

Or, in earbuds, for another — as something has be used to make magnets that small.

Rechargeable batteries to certain high-tech lighting, for a couple more.

Rare earth elements regularly occur in the strata and fissures of the planet’s basement level.

The U.S. relies on nearly 15,000 tons of such elements a year for its manufacturing concerns, and just about all of the geographic bounty is imported.

 Don’t drink this water

China produces some 80% of the world’s rare earth elements, but you’ll also find them in these climes, as well —  Appalachia, and West Virginia, in particular, if you know where to look.

Coal seams and brownfields.

And orange-tinted creeks and other waterways: The uninhabitable calling card of acid mine runoff and drainage, and its toxic, water-soil sludge byproduct, which always translates to environmental dystopia. 

That aforementioned $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, Paul Ziemkiewicz says, will be used for rare-earth fishing expeditions, as it were.

The institute, said Ziemkiewicz, its director, is aiming for ways to better extract such elements from acid mine drainage sites from across the Mountain State, as part of its Rare Earth Recovery Project.

Part of that work includes the construction of a research facility next to an acid mine drainage treatment plant in Mt. Storm, Grant County, Ziemkiewicz said.

That’s still a year away, though, he said, and with field work that still needed to be done, the institute tapped Extreme Endeavors to build a mobile lab — so such elements could be snagged even as the earth is being turned.

No fish in a barrel here, Ziemkiewicz said.

Not exactly.

 It’s more like rare earth elements in the acid-mine sludge, instead.

A typical bucket of the stuff, the director detailed, might contain up to 5% of those elements.

Mike Masterman, who founded Extreme Endeavors, quickly hit the ground running for his new role in the rare earth business.

“I was astonished,” Ziemkiewicz said. “They built the entire lab in three weeks.”

 Experiences, to the extreme

This isn’t his company’s first splash into water research, Masterman said.

Extreme Endeavors is already working with several public service districts across the state on modernizing and digitizing their water management systems.

It won’t be water under the bridge, he said, if companies in the U.S., and West Virginia, in particular, could begin extracting profits along with rare earth elements from the Appalachian blight of acid mine sludge.

“People could make money by doing the right thing environmentally,” Masterman said.

In the meantime, he knows all about extreme environments, and the endeavors lashed to the luggage rack.

As an elementary school student in Washington state in 1980, he and his family were left stranded for a time by volcanic ash fallout from the Mt. St. Helen’s eruption.

Twenty years ago, he was station manager for a U.S. research facility in Antarctica and spent 28 months and two winters on an ice plateau, thousands of miles away from the nearest human dwelling.

No cell service, either.

TWEET @DominionPostWV