The Laramie-based company has developed a method of extracting Rare Earth Elements from coal in an energy and environmentally sustainable process

LARAMIE – Wyonics is an emerging company based at the University of Wyoming and has developed a method of processing coal products that can be accomplished with no burning, no corrosive chemicals, low to no waste, and has the potential to develop a brand-new “coal economy” in not just the Cowboy State, but worldwide.

One of Wyoming’s most valuable resource is coal. However, with pressure from evolving sustainable energy market economics and environmental concerns. Wyoming is just one of the hundreds of coal mining regions worldwide now facing the challenges of energy and economic diversification. Despite a national policy that has attempted to build up the coal sector, Wyoming faces the same threat as resource-based economies all over the world: diversify or fail.

From their office and laboratory at UW, Wyonics co-founder and CEO Kristin R. Di Bona, Ph.D., and Caleb Hill, Ph.D., an assistant professor of chemistry at UW, say they and their team have developed and demonstrated a sustainable “Ionic Liquids” process for the direct extraction of Rare Earth Elements from coal and fly ash, and recovery from the coal/IL solution, without the addition of acid and other corrosive chemicals.  The group has a patent pending.

The two other co-founders of the Wyonics team are Gabriela Gurau, Ph.D. COO, and Robin Rogers, Ph.D. CSO. Rogers is a research professor at the University of Alabama.

The group is affiliated with or has received support from several public and private sector organizations, including the U.S. Dept. of Energy, National Energy Technology Laboratory, Critical Materials Institute, Small Business Innovation Research – Small Business Technology Transfer programs, University of Wyoming, 525 Solutions Inc., Wyoming Small Business Development Center, Wyoming Technology Business Center, and the Laramie Chamber Business Alliance.

Hill created his research group at UW in 2016, focusing on the chemical properties of nanoscale systems, as well as developing methods and tools for studying those systems.

“The ionic liquids process itself started from sitting around and discussing how we could leverage our expertise to actually tackle some kind of practical problem relevant to the State of Wyoming,” Hill said. “We have a collective background in ionic liquids technology, previous work from other members of the company that have shown it is a very powerful strategy to extract essentially high-value products from waste.”

“We looked at it as an opportunity to apply the same technology, to see if we could provide high-value products from a product that is not necessarily waste, but if you look at it economically, right now has a price that’s lower than dirt – that being coal in the State of Wyoming.”

“Coal is known to contain a significant amount of rare earth elements that are vital to modern technologies, like computers, cell phones, and even national security,” said Di Bona. “We were supported by the Department of Energy to extract REEs from coal and coal by-products.

“We showed that we could do that using ionic liquids. The reason we’re using ionic liquids is not only that they are excellent solvents, but we can specifically design them for whichever extraction properties we want, and they’re typically non-volatile.”

Di Bona said that in the past 18 months, the group has developed a process where they can take coal and dissolve it in a specifically designed ionic liquid. The team has done this repeatedly, and they have shown that extracting all rare earth elements is possible.

“We can also extract other critical materials, and we are in the process of generating secondary valuable materials, such as carbon fibers and other carbon materials,” Di Bona said. “We have done this on a ‘bench’ scale, and we are in the process of both scaling up and trying to get investments in order to move toward commercialization. We now need to scale it up in order to prove commercial viability and are seeking the additional funding necessary to do so.”

“We’ve shown we can do this. Two of our partners were instrumental in the development and scale-up of ionic liquid-based extraction of the biopolymer chitin from shellfish waste. The chitin extraction process has since been scaled to a commercial-size plant in Virginia,” said Di Bona.

“The main thrust of all of our work is sustainable processes. We utilize safe ionic liquids that are expertly designed for their specific purpose (task-specific ionic liquids). There are many misconceptions of ILs due to classifying them all together. The key is how the IL is designed. You can choose cations or anions for your specific purpose.”

What does this mean for Wyoming?

​Technological advancements in mining Wyoming’s coal makes it relatively cheap to extract, and this region’s coal burns cleaner and produces more energy per ton than other coal varieties. Unfortunately, these benefits do not alter the fact that coal-fired power plant operations around the United States, including in Wyoming, continue to dwindle as environmental demands for renewable energy grows.

Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon has already expressed his displeasure at Rocky Mountain Power’s recent coal study. The utility that operates in Wyoming and other Western states is continuing to examine the early retirement of coal-fired power units in Lincoln and Sweetwater counties. Those power plants employ hundreds of people as do the mines that supply them with coal.

“This has significant impacts on all of Wyoming and revenue for schools and other services we all depend on. It also means a loss of jobs and changing people’s lives,” said Gordon. “The potential for early retirements of some coal-fired power plants means we drift further away from finding solutions for reducing carbon emissions at all coal-fired power plants, those plants in Wyoming and across the globe.”

Gordon said he will advocate for a positive path where this utility and other businesses, like Wyonics, are part of developing solutions rather than destroying communities and delaying progress on meaningful technological advances that keeps coal as part of a diverse energy portfolio.

“Our process has the potential to generate multiple industries. We can dissolve coal and basically extract whichever part we want – and there is a lot in coal. Obviously, there is a large amount of carbon, there are other chemicals and metals, and there are critical materials, which there is a big focus on right now. We have shown that we can extract them,” said Di Bona.

“This has the potential to be a secondary source for income, and it’s not related to combustion. Yes, you can still take the carbons out and burn them, but we would prefer to turn it into higher-value materials.”

“As the coal industry is focused right now,” Hill said, “coal is an energy feedstock. You can put it through a process wherein you’re converting a bunch of unstable molecules to a very stable product, which is CO2 and a bunch of other stuff, and that creates excess energy that is given off and utilized as electricity.”

“What we’re trying to establish, as part of a new focus for that entire industry, is to use coal not as an energy feedstock, but as a material feedstock. If you can intelligently dissolve it, and separate the valuable components that are in there – and there are many – and recycle the IL, then you don’t have to burn it. That option is less attractive than just utilizing what you have there as material,” said Hill.

Worldwide, the potential is astronomical. Hill said, for example, if extracting rare earth elements is your primary economic driver, then you would use a coal feedstock that has as high of an REE content as possible.

“You would look at specific geographic distributions. There are certain coal seams in Wyoming that have very high REE content. It would make sense to utilize that type of coal over others. We would like to develop a process, as far as the solution and separation go, that is fairly universal. If you could put any coal from Wyoming through, and be able to take a stream and develop a product from that stream, that is our goal,” Hill said.

According to the Wyoming State Geological Survey, Wyoming has been the #1 coal-producing state in the United States since 1986. In fact, the coal extracted from Wyoming’s coal mines accounts for more than 40 percent of the annual U.S. coal supply.

The production of coal in Wyoming contributes between $900 million and $1.2 billion in revenue to state and local governments annually; approximately 30 percent of Wyoming’s economy depends on mining, which directly and indirectly employs more than 17,000 citizens.

“We’ve shown we can also recover different materials by treating them with different processes, but I can’t go into details. Different treatments resulted in different extractions. We experimented with a different treatment where we were able to extract 100 percent of the REEs,” said Di Bona.

“Over 90 percent of REEs today are produced in China, so the U.S. relies very heavily on China’s production of these vital elements. REEs are basically in all modern technologies, so if China decides to stop providing them, we are too dependent on them. We do have reserves, but are they enough?” said Di Bona.

“The government and the military are heavily invested in trying to ensure a feasible domestic supply of REEs, even if it is not immediately economically competitive compared to what you can get out of China. Just the fact that there is a feasible supply in the U.S. is very important,” Hill said.

Di Bona said it is estimated there are over 6 million tons of REE’s just in the western coal basin alone (including Wyoming), reason enough to redefine Wyoming’s – and America’s - coal economy.