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Statler College professor receives grants to study critical mineral recovery in acid mine drainage

A graduate student working on tests to extract critical and rare earth minerals.

A WVU graduate student working on tests to  extract critical and rare earth minerals. 

Qingqing Huang, assistant professor of mining engineering at the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, received two grants totaling $518,500 to study the extraction of critical minerals from different sources. 

Story by Brittany Furbee, Communications Specialist
Photos by Paige Nesbit, Director of Marketing


The funding, provided by the US Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation & Enforcement and the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, will assist researchers at West Virginia University and partner institutions as they work to discover new low-cost and carbon negative methods for critical mineral recovery.

The first grant will be used to develop a low-cost adsorption technique to extract critical minerals, including manganese, cobalt, zinc, and nickel, from acid mine drainage. 

“Adsorption is a process in which adsorbates such as metal ions collect on the adsorbent surface and form a molecular or thin film,” explained Huang. “The main advantage of the adsorption process is its simplicity, high efficiency, low cost, and wide-range availability, and its ability to be scaled up for industrial-scale application with commercialized methods of extracting metals from low-concentration solutions such as wastewater.” 

Huang's research project will use adsorbents made of natural and modified minerals to selectively adsorb and desorb critical minerals based on custom parameters for critical mineral recovery.   

According to Huang, ongoing research has indicated the technical feasibility of extracting critical minerals from various secondary sources. However, economic viability is the key to eventually commercializing the developed processes. 

“This research aims to develop a low-cost technology for recovering critical minerals from mine waste streams and contribute to technology commercialization,” said Huang. “The concentrated critical minerals can be sent to the downstream refining processes for metal or alloy production and used in different applications.” 

The second grant will be used for a collaborative project between multiple universities and industry partners that will focus on developing a carbon-negative process for comminution, the action of reducing a material to minute particles or fragments. The also seek to produce energy reduction and energy-relevant mineral extraction through carbon mineralization and biological carbon fixation. Huang will serve as the primary investigator for the project and the University of Kentucky is the lead for the overall project.  

For the project, the team will use carbon dioxide emitted at or near operating mines and processing operations to reduce the energy consumed during grinding by more than 50 percent while improving the recovery of critical energy-relevant minerals by 20 percent or greater. 

“In this approach, CO₂ will be mixed with ore containing valuable minerals, especially copper and rare earth elements, to improve grinding and separation efficiency,” Huang explained. “After mixing, different minerals in the same ore react differently with CO₂, generating flaws and fractures in the particle. As a result, the energy needed to grind the ore particles to a desired size for critical mineral recovery can be substantially reduced.” 

The process differs from current methods by utilizing waste CO₂ to react with CO₂ -reactive minerals in the ores to reduce the energy used for comminution.  

“This energy reduction will be significant since comminution currently consumes up to 4 percent of electrical energy globally and about 50 percent of mine site energy consumption,” said Huang. “Moreover, it helps achieve negative carbon emissions by using waste CO₂ as a source for mineral carbonation. The CO₂ released from carbonate ore will be captured and consumed in the bioleaching system by serving as a nutrient for bacteria growth, which leads to biological carbon fixation.”  

Huang's research has significant implications, as critical minerals are needed in numerous high demand applications, including high-tech, clean energy and national defense.  

“Critical minerals are also used in everyday applications, such as smartphones, tablets, TVs, computers and batteries, as well as wind turbines, solar panels, semiconductors, defense, aerospace and medical applications,” said Huang. “26 of the 50 critical minerals on the United States Geological Survey’s 2022 list are imported from foreign countries. Given their crucial role in many applications, there is a growing urgency for the US to develop its domestic supply chains of critical minerals.”  

Both research projects can benefit the mining and mineral industry by developing new technologies that can potentially turn mine waste into pipeline of strategic critical minerals.  

Huang believes this could incentivize the coal mining industry to adopt the new waste treatment strategy and in order to generate new revenue streams.  



Contact: Paige Nesbit
Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources
304.293.4135, Paige Nesbit

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