The University of North Dakota’s Energy and Environmental Research Center has been doing the study of what are called “rare earth” elements in lignite coal.
Those elements are essential for such things as cell phones, batteries and other electronic devices. Currently, the US imports most of those elements from other countries, such as China.
"We are seeing we have high concentrations in coals, and lignite in particular," said EERC CEO Charles Gorecki. "And it's just identifying where they are, and working on how you extract them, and get them to a processing plant."
Gorecki said those rare earth elements are worth a lot of money -- far more than the coal.
"That could be an industry for the future for North Dakota," Gorecki said.
Gorecki said the elements are present in both the lignite coal as mined, and in the coal ash left over when the lignite is burned. He said at the same time, EERC is researching extracting graphene from lignite.
"Graphene is a single layer of carbon molecules in a sheet," Gorecki said. "It's extraordinarily light, and extraordinarily strong."
Gorecki said it could be used in aviation. And he said it, too, is very valuable.
"Graphene is thousands of dollars per ton, compared with $10 per ton for coal," Gorecki said.
Gorecki said extracting those elements could help keep the lignite industry viable in North Dakota. He said that, along with carbon capture technologies being developed, could mean lignite’s future could be very bright.
"At the end of the day, we could have reliable power, that we're producing from lignite coal with zero emissions, and on top of that, mining the coal for rare earth elements, this could mean a great energy park," Gorecki said. "It could be a win for everybody."