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Coal waste piles might be a bright spot in W.Va. economic future

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — A product needed to produce a high number of electronic gadgets we use every day is in short supply and high demand. But West Virginia has mountains of what are called “rare earth elements” if researchers can come up with a way to tap the stream economically.

The elements are in every computer, TV, or cell phone we use. Currently the largest percentage of those materials are produced and processed in China. The dependence on China makes the vital product unreliable, but Dr. John Deskins with WVU’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research gets excited when he explained one of the largest sources of rare earth elements are contained in old coal waste piles which dot the landscape of West Virginia and a few other Appalachian states.

“These piles and tons of coal waste we’ve been producing for over 100 years have rare earths in them,” Deskins said in a recent appearing on MetroNews Talkline.

The key is finding a way to extract them cheaply. So far, it’s so expensive, the venture isn’t worth the cost. However, research engineers at WVU are working on it. The research has Deskins excited.

“This is an economic opportunity we’re working on. This could be a real boost to West Virginia and it’s something other places can’t replicate. It’s not like California or New York can copy this. It’s only available in West Virginia and a few other places. It could be a great boost,” he explained.

Despite his difficulty containing his enthusiasm, Deskins noted it’s part of the long view of West Virginia’s economy.

“This isn’t something we’re going to do tomorrow,” he said.

However, the optimism also came with a second benefit–the cleanup of old coal waste piles across the state.

“Not only can it boost our economy, but the engineering process will help us clean up these coal waste disposal sites so it’s a win-win and it makes me excited. You can probably hear it in my voice,” he said.

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