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UK to Partner with MP Materials on Department of Energy Award

August 10, 2021

The project seeks to extract rare earths from fossil fuel waste streams to diversify the supply base and provide economic opportunity for depressed communities. 

Rare earth elements are a series of 17 chemical elements found in the Earth’s crust.

Rare earth elements are a series of 17 chemical elements found in the Earth’s crust.

Researchers at the University of Kentucky are part of a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that was provided to complete a feasibility study, in concert with MP Materials (NYSE: MP), on a system to produce rare earth oxides, metals and other critical materials recovered from coal by-products.

“We are grateful for the opportunity that this collaboration with MP Materials represents to make a strategic and environmental difference,” said Joshua Werner, assistant professor of mining engineering and UK principal investigator. “The significance of this work is the ability to partner with MP Materials and their deep expertise to provide a vertically integrated, domestic rare earth supply chain to extract additional value from waste streams for the green revolution. This project is exciting because it combines elements of economic development in depressed communities with the potential for environmental justice by turning a potential liability into a valuable asset. This work is made possible by DOE funding and the pioneering efforts of researchers at UK.”

MP Materials and UK will advance their design for a modular system to concentrate critical metals from coal by-products locally in Kentucky. The concentrate will then be delivered to Mountain Pass, California, where MP Materials will leverage its existing capabilities to refine and purify the individual rare earth elements from the concentrate before reducing them to metal. The collaboration seeks to minimize the system’s capital and operating costs, as well as its environmental footprint, while maximizing economic opportunities for coal communities.

UK researchers, led by mining engineering professor Rick Honaker, have already received $11 million from the DOE and project partners for research related to recovering rare earth elements (REE) from coal and coal by-products. REEs are a series of 17 chemical elements found in the Earth’s crust. Due to their unique chemical properties, REEs are essential components of technologies spanning a range of applications, including electronics, computer and communication systems, transportation, health care and national defense. The demand for REEs has grown significantly in recent years, stimulating an interest in economically feasible approaches for domestic REE recovery.

MP Materials Corp. is the largest producer of rare earth materials in the Western Hemisphere. With more than 300 employees, the company owns and operates the Mountain Pass Rare Earth Mine and Processing Facility, which is the only rare earth mining and processing site of scale in the Western Hemisphere. The operation produced approximately 15% of the rare earth content consumed in the global market in 2020.  

“The clean technologies powering the future depend on powerful rare earth magnets to turn energy into motion,” said Michael Rosenthal, Chief Operating Officer, MP Materials. “As the economy electrifies, achieving a sustainable means to extract critical materials from the by-products of fossil fuel extraction would diversify the supply base while providing valuable economic opportunity to communities across the country. We appreciate the support of the Department of Energy and the opportunity to collaborate with the world-class experts at the University of Kentucky as we work to advance this study.”