DOE provides $12 million to advance separation technologies

March 24, 2005

Blacksburg, Va. -- The Center for Advanced Separation Technologies, a multi-university and industry consortium lead by Virginia Tech, has received a $12 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL). The fund is to advance separation technologies that are used by mining industries in order to meet national energy and environment goals.

Established in 2001, the center develops advanced technologies in solid-solid and solid-liquid separations for the mining industry use to produce high-quality solid fuels in an environmentally acceptable and sustainable manner. Center scientists conduct both fundamental and applied research and have had a successful program of technology transfer.

"The objective has been to create the knowledge base and technologies necessary for the economical and efficient recovery of coal and other minerals," said Roe-Hoan Yoon, professor of mining and minerals engineering at Virginia Tech and director of the Center for Advanced Separation Technologies (CAST).

For the three-year NETL project, CAST will conduct broad-based research to develop advanced technologies in physical separation, chemical/biological separation, and environmental control, which have crosscutting applications in the mining industry. A NETL announcement stated, "The advanced separation technologies developed in the proposed work can be used for producing high-quality solid fuels with maximum recovery without adversely impacting the environment. Some of the technologies can also be used for extracting values from low-grade ores and cleaning up the environment. The new technologies and information generated from the proposed work will help the U.S. mining industry provide low-cost energy and mineral products in a sustainable manner."

Yoon firmly believes the United States can rely on more of its own assets and resources.

Oil is the largest source of the energy used in the United States, providing 40 percent of the nation's energy needs. At present, the U. S. imports oil to meet nearly 60 percent of its domestic consumption, Yoon said. "President Bush has developed a comprehensive National Energy Policy that stresses the importance of increasing supplies while protecting the environment. Unfortunately, coal contains many undesirable impurities and, hence, emits pollutants during the course of production and utilization. Therefore, there is a need to develop advanced separation technologies that can be used to efficiently produce cleaner solid fuels in an environmentally acceptable manner," Yoon said.

Availability of the new technologies will help industry meet the stringent requirements of the newly promulgated Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Air Interstate Rule (CAIR) and the Clean Air Mercury Rule (CAMR). CAIR requires coal-burning power plants to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by 70 percent and nitrogen oxides emissions by 60 percent, while CAMR requires mercury emissions be reduced to 38 tons per year by 2010 and 15 tons by 2018. "CAST is an excellent vehicle to develop advanced technologies that can be used to meet these new requirements," Yoon said.

For example, CAST is in the process of developing a sensor that can detect very low levels of mercury and is studying novel methods of capturing vapor-phase mercury. "Recent research conducted by CAST member universities showed also that approximately 70 to 80 percent of mercury can be removed from some eastern U.S. coals before they are burned," Yoon said. "With further research, this approach can potentially be a lower-cost option to post combustion control technologies."

At present, a total of 40 research projects are being carried out at the seven CAST member universities. The project selection was made by an industry panel in accordance with the priorities set forth in the CAST Technology Roadmap, which gave the highest priorities to dewatering fine coal. Yoon said, "Many coal companies are losing considerable amounts of coal during cleaning operations due to the lack of appropriate separation technologies. The loss of coal, particularly of fine particles, contributes to high production costs and creates environmental problems at mine sites."

CAST research projects include:

  • Cleaning and dewatering of previously discarded fine coal particles, now being implemented by Beard Technologies at a site in West Virginia;

  • Developing a hyperbaric centrifuge that can remove water from fine coal using a combination of air pressure and centrifugal force, which has been licensed to Decanter Machine Company in Johnson City, Tenn.; and

  • Developing a flocculant injection system to minimize the loss of fine coal in widely used screenbowl centrifuges. The system has so far have been installed at 18 sites.

    CAST is also researching alternatives to copper smelting to replace or reduce chemical leaching; methods for extracting gold using alkaline sulfide rather than cyanide; a flotation process for purifying soda ash rather than the costly brine solution process.

    Virginia Tech and West Virginia University established CAST under the auspices of NETL through a competitive solicitation process. Virginia Tech's partnership with West Virginia University is based on both universities sustaining long histories of strong research and teaching programs in mining and minerals engineering. In 2002, the University of Kentucky, Montana Tech of the University of Montana, the University of Utah, New Mexico Tech, and the University of Nevada, Reno, joined the consortium to develop crosscutting technologies that can also be used by the U.S. minerals industry. As a result, the scope of work was expanded to chemical/biological separations and environmental control.

    In 2004, the U.S. mining industry produced a total of $63.9 billion worth of raw materials, including $19.9 billion from coal and $44 billion from minerals - second only to China. CAST is the only center devoted to separations research as applied to mining industry in the United States. "The NETL award will allow CAST to develop and transfer additional advanced separation technologies to remove impurities from coal, including mercury, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides, in an environmentally acceptable manner - and to clean up waste impoundments created in the past and acid mine water," Yoon said.

    Congressman Boucher, representing Southwest Virginia, U.S. Representative James Moran of Northern Virginia, and U.S. Senators John Warner and George Allen have been instrumental in the funding received by the center, Yoon said.

    Since joining the Virginia Tech faculty in 1979, Yoon has established an internationally recognized research program in mineral processing and coal preparation and has become a leader in the development of clean-coal technologies. He has directed more than 50 graduate students and advanced the basic understanding of colloidal and surface chemistry. He and his research colleagues at Virginia Tech have produced more than 300 scientific publications and more than 25 patents, including patented technologies in use by the coal and minerals processing industry worldwide. For 13 years before CAST was established, Yoon directed the Center for Coal and Mineral Processing at Virginia Tech.

    Learn more about CAST at

    Virginia Tech

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