Tapping coal mines for rare-earth materials

Tapping coal mines for rare-earth materials

May 23, 2024
Above: Michael Vanden Berg, a geologist with the Utah Geological Survey, examines a coal outcrop near Utah's old Star Point mine. Credit: Lauren Birgenheier


In a groundbreaking study led by the University of Utah, researchers have discovered elevated concentrations of rare earth elements (REEs) in active coal mines rimming the Uinta coal belt of Colorado and Utah.

This finding suggests that these mines, traditionally known for their coal production, could potentially serve as secondary sources for critical minerals essential for renewable energy and high-tech applications. "The model is if you're already moving rock, could you move a little more rock for resources towards energy transition? " Lauren Birgenheier, an associate professor of geology and geophysics, explains, In those areas, we're finding that the rare earth elements are concentrated in fine-grain shale units, the muddy shales that are above and below the coal seams."

Lauren Birgenheier

This research was conducted in partnership with the Utah Geological Survey and Colorado Geological Survey as part of the Department of Energy-funded Carbon Ore, Rare Earth and Critical Minerals project, or CORE-CM. The new findings will form the basis for a grant request of an additional $9.4 million in federal funding to continue the research.

"When we talk about them as 'critical minerals,' a lot of the criticality is related to the supply chain and the processing," said Michael Free, a professor metallurgical engineering and the principal investigator on the DOE grant. "This project is designed around looking at some alternative unconventional domestic sources for these materials."

The U-led study was published last month in the journal Frontiers in Earth Science. Team members included graduate students Haley Coe, the lead author, and Diego Fernandez, a research professor who runs the lab that tested samples.

“The goal of this phase-one project was to collect additional data to try and understand whether this was something worth pursuing in the West,” said study co-author Michael Vanden Berg, Energy and Minerals Program Manager at the Utah Geological Survey. “Is there rare earth element enrichment in these rocks that could provide some kind of byproduct or value added to the coal mining industry?”

Haley Coe, U geology graduate student, inspects drilling cores. Photo Credit: Lauren Birgenheier.

“The coal itself is not enriched in rare earth elements,” Vanden Berg said. “There's not going to be a byproduct from mining the coal, but for a company mining the coal seam, could they take a couple feet of the floor at the same time? Could they take a couple feet of the ceiling? Could there be potential there? That's the direction that the data led us.”

To gather samples, the team worked directly with mine operators and examined coal seam outcrops and processing waste piles. In some cases, they analyzed drilling cores, both archived cores and recently drilled ones at the mines. The team entered Utah mines to collect rock samples from the underground ramps that connect coal seams.

The study targeted the coal-producing region stretching from Utah’s Wasatch Plateau east across the Book Cliffs deep into Colorado. Researchers analyzed 3,500 samples from 10 mines, four mine waste piles, seven stratigraphically complete cores, and even some coal ash piles near power plants.

The study included Utah’s active Skyline, Gentry, Emery and Sufco mines, recently-idled Dugout and Lila Canyon mines in the Book Cliffs, and the historic Star Point and Beaver Creek No. 8 mines. The Colorado mines studied were the Deserado and West Elk.

Discover more about this groundbreaking research by visiting the full article by Brian Maffly at @The U.

Read more about this story at KUER.

Greening Iron & Steel Production

U Included in $28M for cutting-edge tech to clean up iron and steel

April 16, 2024
Above: Zak Fang in his Powder Metallurgy Research lab at the University of Utah


A new infusion of federal funding through the Department of Energy (DOE) totaling $28 million will support some of the most cutting-edge efforts to decarbonize the dirty steel industry, and the University of Utah has received the largest award (~ $3.5 million) of the 13 projects in nine states.



Principal Investigator Pei Sun

The initiative, through the DOE's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) aims to spur solutions that can eliminate carbon dioxide emissions from the ironmaking process and sharply reduce emissions across the entire steel supply chain, according to an announcement shared with Canary Media, dedicated to news about cleaning up heavy industry.

Iron and steel production are among the most difficult industrial sectors to decarbonize, which is why ARPA-E is laser-focused on accelerating game-changing technological breakthroughs to lower emissions from these critical sectors,” Evelyn Wang, the agency’s director, said in an emailed statement.

The awards come just weeks after the Biden administration announced up to $6 billion in federal support for commercial-scale demonstration projects that will curb CO2 from heavy industrial sectors. That program includes up to $500 million each for two new ​direct reduced iron” plants that run on clean hydrogen instead of coal or fossil gas.

The $28 million initiative is funded by ARPA-E’s appropriations from Congress, through the Revolutionizing Ore to Steel to Impact Emissions (ROSIE) initiative while the much larger program announced earlier is funded by the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Globally, steel production generates as much as 9 percent of human-caused CO2 emissions every year — more than any other heavy industry.

About 70 percent of those emissions come from the ironmaking process alone. Existing blast furnaces use purified coal (or ​coke”) and limestone to turn iron ore into molten iron at extremely high temperatures. A separate facility then turns iron into high-strength steel, which goes on to become car parts, structural beams, kitchen appliances, and much more.

ARPA-E said the 13 companies, universities -- including the University of Utah through and research institutions selected for award negotiations are primarily targeting those blast-furnace emissions. The U's award, amounting to $3,479,082, will advance a hydrogen-reduction melt-less steelmaking technology. The proposed process has the potential to drastically reduce energy consumption by eliminating several high-energy steps in traditional iron and steelmaking and is conducted at substantially lower temperatures than conventional methods. This approach is projected to decrease energy use by at least 50% in the production of steel mill products and up to 90% in creating near-net-shape steel components.

Pei Sun, Research Associate Professor in Fang's Powder Metallurgy Research lab is principal investigator of the funded project.

Read more about this story at Canary Media.

Metallurgical Engineering and IperionX Unveil New Research Facility

Metallurgical Engineering and IperionX Unveil New Research Facility

The new lab follows announcement of 10-year, $10 million agreement with titanium industry leader IperionX

Following the 10-year, $10 million research agreement announced earlier this year between the University of Utah’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering and Charlotte-based IperionX, the two partners, along with college and university leadership, celebrated the opening of a new state-of-the-art additive manufacturing research center on campus in the William Browning Building. The lab, which houses cutting-edge 3D titanium printing machines, will serve as a hub for the collaboration between Metallurgical Engineering Professor Zak Fang's powder metallurgy research team and IperionX as they work to advance metallurgical technologies for producing primary metals focused on titanium.

The opening of the lab, named the Titanium Additive Manufacturing Research Center, creates new opportunities for U students to gain hands-on experience with cutting-edge materials science and engineering technologies. The partnership aims to inspire the next generation of metallurgical innovators, equipping them with the skills and experience needed to pioneer breakthroughs in sustainable metal production and processing.

IperionX CEO Taso Arima.
Banner photo: Ribbon cutting, led by Provost Mitzi Montoya and IperionX CEO Taso Arima.

"This new lab represents the tangible fruits of our partnership with IperionX and underscores our shared commitment to developing transformative solutions for the energy and transportation sectors," said Fang, the lead researcher on the project. "By combining our academic expertise in materials science and engineering with IperionX's industry know-how and resources, we are poised to make significant strides in areas like additive manufacturing of titanium alloys and recycling of critical minerals."

IperionX’s role as a leader in sustainable titanium production is a key component of this collaborative research effort. The North Carolina-based company has patented technologies aimed at recycling the valuable metal at a lower cost and with reduced environmental impact compared to traditional methods. 

“IperionX is excited to continue its extensive collaboration with the University of Utah and Dr. Zak Fang,” said IperionX CEO Taso Arima. “It all started here at the University of Utah, with Dr. Fang’s innovation and his vision for manufacturing and re-shoring low-cost, high performance titanium metal in America. The Titanium Additive Manufacturing Research Center will allow us to continue to rapidly innovate, and we believe this center and continued work with Dr. Fang and his research team will assist to attract students to materials science and engineering — because this is what drives innovation for the critical technologies needed for the U.S. and society as a whole.”

"This academic-industry partnership of the Fang Lab and IperionX exemplifies the College of Science’s innovative bench-to-application research to meet the needs of our energy future," said Peter Trapa, Dean of the College of Science. "By supporting cutting-edge research that addresses real-world challenges, we are cultivating the next generation of scientific leaders and driving economic growth in Utah."

Joint efforts with industry partners have been part of the U's remarkable research growth over the past decade. In fiscal year 2023, university research funding reached a landmark $768 million, nearly doubling its support in the last ten years. As the U continues to work towards a goal of $1 billion in research funding, its leadership views industry collaboration as a vehicle to accelerate discovery and translate research into real-world applications.

“Collaborations like this one are virtuous cycles,” said Richard Brown, H. E. Thomas Presidential Endowed Dean of the John and Marcia Price College of Engineering. “Cutting-edge research and industry supporting one another is the backbone of a growing innovation economy.”

by Bianca Lyon


Fang Lab Enters Agreement

Fang Lab Enters Agreement with IPERIONX


Metallurgical Engineering professors in the University of Utah’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering recently signed a research agreement with IperionX (IPX) for $10M over ten years, effective January 1, 2024.

The Charlotte, NC-based IPX aims to become a leading American titanium and critical materials company — using patented metals technologies to produce high-performance titanium metal from titanium minerals or scrap titanium at lower energy, cost, and carbon emissions than conventional technologies.

The project is led by  Z. Zak Fang, professor of metallurgy in the John and Marcia Price College of Engineering and the College of Science, and is Co-led by Research Associate Professor Pei Sun.

The team of Fang’s powder metallurgy research lab in front of the laser 3D printing laboratory. Banner image above: Additively manufactured Ti-6Al-4V parts by the powder metallurgy laboratory at the University of Utah

Fang and his research team will provide IPX with research and development services related to metallurgical technologies to produce primary metals, advanced manufacturing technologies, including additive manufacturing (i.e., 3D printing) of titanium alloys, and recycling of rare earth metals from magnets used in wind turbines and electric vehicles.

“This academic-industry partnership of the Fang Lab and IperionX exemplifies the College of Science’s innovative bench-to-application research to meet the needs of our energy future,” said Dean Peter Trapa.

“Collaborations like this one are virtuous cycles; cutting-edge research and industry supporting one another is the backbone of a growing innovation economy,” says Richard Brown, H. E. Thomas Presidential Endowed Dean of the John and Marcia Price College of Engineering.

Read more about Dr. Fang's research in titanium here.