Author ORCID Identifier

Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation




Mining Engineering

First Advisor

Dr. Rick Honaker


Rare earth elements (REE) are a group of 17 elements typically classified as light and heavy rare earth elements, which play a crucial role in developing the latest technologies for energy, defense, and medical sectors. Even though REEs have been found in more than 200 minerals, only bastnaesite, monazite and xenotime are commercially exploited for REE extraction. However, the recent exponential increase in REE demand has spurred countries such as the United States into research for the extraction of REEs from secondary sources such as coal, acid mine drainage, and coal ash. Several coal sources (e.g., Fire Clay seam coal) across the United States have been identified to contain elevated concentrations of rare earth elements (>600 ppm), and various researchers have investigated the feasibility of both physical and hydrometallurgical extraction techniques for rare earth concentration and subsequent extraction. However, both physical and direct leaching were concluded to be inefficient for RE beneficiation and extraction due to low recoveries.

Alternatively, thermal treatment provides promising means for RE recovery from bituminous coal sources. The positive impact of thermal treatment/calcination was established to be due to the decarbonization and dehydroxylation of the clays, which released entrapped rare earth elements within the dominant minerals and converted them into an acid-soluble form. Nonetheless, the improvement in recovery was limited to the light REEs (LREEs) with an insignificant increase in the heavy REEs (HREE). It was demonstrated that the light and heavy REEs in the material were associated with difficult-to-leach minerals such as monazite, xenotime, and zircon, which were not decomposed by simple calcination due to their high thermal stability. Hence, roasting in the presence of chemicals was necessary to ensure the decomposition of those REE-containing minerals. As such, this study was focused on the acid baking treatment of bituminous coals with an aim to enhance REE recovery, especially HREEs.

Based on the presence of REE minerals like monazite and xenotime, three pre-leach treatment methods, i.e., 1) roasting, 2) direct acid baking, and 3) acid baking after roasting were investigated. Roasting tests at 600 ⁰C revealed that the recovery of light REEs (LREEs) was enhanced while the recovery of HREEs remained relatively unaffected. LREE and HREE recovery values of 38.3% and 21.3%, respectively, were achieved using a 50 g/L sulfuric acid solution at 5% solid concentration and a solution temperature of 75 ⁰C for 2 hours. Comparatively, direct acid baking at 250 °C provided substantial increased LREE and HREE recovery values to approximately 49.4% and 53.0%, respectively, using an equivalent acid dosage. Recoveries were maximized to 77.0% and 79.6% for LREE and HREE, respectively, by roasting followed by acid baking. Similar results were obtained from the treatment of a second bituminous coal source. Due to strong correlations between REE and Al recovery values, tests were performed on kaolinite and illite, which were prominent clay minerals within the source coals. These experiments revealed that the REE recovery improvements were likely a result of dehydroxylation of clays and subsequent release and decomposition of REE-bearing minerals such as monazite, xenotime and zircon.

Subsequently, a parametric study was conducted to identify the impact of acid baking parameters on rare earth element recovery. The factors investigated using a three-level statistical experimental program were acid baking time, acid solution concentration, baking temperature, and acid solution-to-solids ratio which were found to significantly impact REE and contaminant element (Al, Fe, and Ca) recovery. An increase in baking temperature up to around 250 ⁰C improved the light and heavy REE recovery values by more than 50 absolute percentage points relative to performances achieved when direct leaching. As aforementioned, acid baking was needed to both decompose the clay minerals and liberate the REE minerals, which allowed access for the acid to solubilize the REEs. Acid concentration of the solution used for acid baking was studied as a means of minimizing the amount of acid needed to achieve a target REE recovery. However, thermo-gravimetric and differential scanning calorimetry analysis (TGA-DSC) of sulfuric acid under oxidizing atmosphere revealed that the addition of water decreased the evaporation temperature, which explains the lower REE recovery values obtained when using acid concentrations less than 100%. Using pure sulfuric acid at an acid-to-solid ratio of 0.8:1 resulted in recovery values of around 70% for both LREEs and HREEs. The decomposition reaction time was relatively quick with 65% of the TREEs recovered within the first 10 minutes.

Following the identification of optimum operating conditions through the parametric study, a systematic leaching study was carried out to examine the impact of leaching parameters, such as solid-to-liquid (S/L) ratio, temperature, and time, on REE recovery using acid baking conditions of 1:1 acid to solids ratio at 250 °C for 30 minutes. The solid-to-liquid ratio was varied from 1-20% by weight at 25 °C, 50 °C, and 75 °C solution temperatures. The results indicated that reaction time and solution temperature considerably impacted the recovery of heavy and light REEs. Interestingly, LREE recovery reduced from 68% at 5% S/L to 58% at 20%S/L, whereas HREE recovery of 78% remained unaffected. The decrease in the LREE recovery was determined to be due to La and Ce precipitation, likely through isomorphic substitution with calcium in gypsum. The kinetic data indicated that 67% LREE and 77% HREE recovery could be obtained within the first 15 minutes of the reaction, suggesting fast reaction kinetics. Furthermore, raising the solution temperature from 25 °C to 75 °C increased the LREE and HREE recovery from 60% and 32% to 67% and 79%, respectively. The kinetic modeling results demonstrated that the rate-limiting step in the LREE dissolution was diffusion and chemical reaction, whereas the HREE extraction was controlled by only chemical reaction. The leaching study concluded that using 20% S/L at 75 °C for 15 minutes maximized LREE and HREE recovery. The lab-scale precipitation study showed that Fe and Al in solution could be removed at pH 4.5 followed by REE precipitation at pH 6.0 using 6 mol/L NaOH. Finally, the bench-scale data was used to develop a process flowsheet for REE recovery from low-grade bituminous coal sources using acid baking.

Finally, based on the proposed flowsheet, a concentrated RE-cake obtained through selective precipitation at pH 6.5 was re-leached using HCl at pH 1.5. The resultant leachate was used to identify the impact of various operating parameters on REE recovery and purity with an aim to maximize REE precipitation efficiency while minimizing the oxalic acid dosage. The operating parameters for this investigation were oxalic acid dosage, iron (III) contamination, solution pH and temperature. The resultant model suggested that oxalic acid dosage and reaction pH are the most significant factors for the REE precipitation efficiency, followed by the interaction of oxalic dosage and Fe concentration. Test results indicated that increasing the oxalic acid concentration from 0g/L to 80g/L improved the REE precipitation efficiency from approximately 4.2% to 95.0%. Furthermore, raising the solution pH from 0.5 to 2.5 considerably enhanced the precipitation efficiency from 0.0% to 98.9%. A solution temperature elevation decreased REE recovery, which indicated an exothermic reaction between REEs and oxalate anions. Finally, a high level of Fe contamination adversely impacted REE precipitation efficiency. The speciation analysis revealed that the dominant iron species in the solution system were Fe-(C₂O₄)₃³⁻, Fe-(C₂O₄)²⁻, and Fe-(C₂O₄)⁺, which consumed the majority of the oxalate anions.

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Funding Information

This material is based upon work supported by the Department of Energy under Award Number DE-FE0031525.