University of North Dakota receives $8 million in federal funds for clean energy study

The study will evaluate ways to recover and refine rare earth elements from lignite coal waste. Rare earth elements are crucial to powering electronics like cell phones.

The University of North Dakota campus is shown in this file photo. Eric Hylden/Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS — As part of a $16 million investment from the Department of Energy, University of North Dakota has received nearly $8 million to study the extraction of rare earth elements and other minerals from lignite coal waste.

According to a press release from the department, the funding comes from the bipartisan infrastructure law, which was passed in 2021. The $16 million in funding was announced Tuesday, April 4, with West Virginia University also receiving $8 million for similar research.

Rare earth elements are used in many everyday devices such as cell phones, computers and other electronics. According to the press release, the United States imports 80% of its rare earth elements. A corresponding fact sheet from the White House stated that the investments announced Tuesday "will help strengthen American supply chains, revitalize energy communities, and reduce reliance on competitors like China."

According a Brink News publication cited by the Brookings Institution, China produces 60% of the world's rare earth elements and has 85% global processing capacity.

Jennifer M. Granholm is the 16th United States Secretary of Energy. She was sworn in to the position on Feb. 25, 2021.
Contributed / U.S. Department of Energy

“Today’s funding will support a first-in-the-nation facility that will convert legacy fossil fuel waste into a domestic source of critical minerals needed to strengthen our clean energy supply chains,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm stated via press release. “President Biden’s Investing in America agenda is helping reduce our overreliance on adversarial nations and positioning the country as a global manufacturing leader—while supporting communities that have helped power our nation for generations.”


According to the press release, the United States produces billions of tons of waste from coal mining. The study at UND will evaluate how rare earth elements can be recovered and refined from the waste produced by the state's lignite coal mines. "The project aims to advance technologies that can enable a cost-competitive, environmentally sensitive process to produce rare earth metals and critical minerals from domestic coal waste," the press release explained.

The study at West Virginia University will seek to transform acid mine drainage and mineral tailings feedstocks into high-purity oxides, salts or metals. In 2021, West Viriginia is the second largest producer of coal in the nation, the Energy Information Administration reported.

Kevin Cramer
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-North Dakota)

"Along with their industry partners and the U.S. Department of Energy, the University of North Dakota is on the cutting edge of our energy future," North Dakota Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer commented via news release. "This award builds on the group’s efforts to research, find and affordably extract rare earth elements and minerals in North Dakota. The significance of developing this domestic supply chain for national and energy security cannot be overstated."

The first phase of the studies is expected to take place over the next 15 months.

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