Southern Appalachia Rare Earth Element Ecosystem
To see detailed data, click on a point or symbol on the map and use the arrows in the data box to toggle between layers and the associated data.
Overview: This map demonstrates the potential to develop a domestic rare earth element (REE) supply chain from coal and/or coal waste in the Southern Appalachian Basin, which includes Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee. REE refers to 17 metallic elements on the periodic table. Their strategic importance originates from their critical role as an input in several key industries such as electronics, clean energy, and defense. Despite their name, REEs are more abundant in the Earth’s crust than copper, zinc, and gold. Instead, the rarity of REE comes from the complex and costly separation and refining processes required to convert the mined rare earth ore into rare earth metals used in production. The Southern Appalachian Basin is unique in that the region contains several potential REE feedstocks (e.g., coal mines, coal combustion residual facilities), several ancillary industries that influence the supply and demand of these feedstocks (e.g., electric power generation, cement and concrete producers) as well as several downstream industries that rely on REEs (electric vehicle and battery production). The development and deployment of new technologies for manufacturing rare earth elements, particularly in the Southern Appalachian Basin, may help to revitalize distressed coal communities that have seen declines in coal production, lead to widespread production of existing and new products, and reduce national reliance on foreign imports of rare earth elements.
Where are the REEs located?
|Coal producing counties: Coal mines are one potential source of REE. The counties in orange identify coal producing counties that had positive coal production at least at some point in time between 2001 and 2021, and coal production data is from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) and the U.S. Department of Labor, Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).|
|CCR facilities: Coal ash, also known as fly ash or coal combustion residuals (CCR), is another promising source of REE. CCR is a byproduct of burning coal to generate electricity. Following the 2008 ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee, there have been growing rules and regulations on coal ash disposal at power plants, including storage in ash ponds, landfills or impoundments. The map includes the location and operating status of CCR facilities, which are from Earth Justice. Detailed data for specific ash pond units includes the plant name, operator, and the estimated volume, or quantity of CCR in cubic yards, which is shown separately for individual CCR units and for the plant as a whole. When applicable, the volume of water held in the unit is also displayed.|
|REE concentrations: Geologists from the University of Alabama collected REE concentration data for select ash pond units, and the plant average concentration (parts per million) and standard deviation across samples are shown for 14 different rare earth elements or lanthanides for five plants in Alabama and four plants in Georgia. (For plants without ash pond sample data, empty cells are shown for these variables.) Similarly, REE concentrations for non-ash samples were also collected, and the location of these samples are shown by the brown diamonds on the map. Clicking on a specific non-ash sample displays the sample concentration (parts per million) for each lanthanide, the total REE concentration, the name of the coal seam, and the sample material (e.g., seam floor rock, sludge, coal mine drainage, or coal tailings).|
What industries determine the supply of REE feedstocks?
|Electricity generation: Generator-level data from EIA is used to demonstrate the location of operating power generators by fuel source. Clicking on a specific generator provides additional data, such as the plant name, fuel type, number of operating generators as of 2022, and the total nameplate capacity (in MW). Additionally, for coal generators, the detailed data include whether or not coal ash (e.g., fly ash, bottom ash, or FGD Gypsum) was sold by the plant in 2021. Additional data from EIA is shown on the map, including where coal generators in the region have been retired, which is represented by the black, outlined squares. Clicking on a retired coal generator point reveals the plant name, the number of coal generators that have been retired at the plant since 2002, and the associated total nameplate capacity (in MW) of the units.|
|Construction: There has also been an increased emphasis on beneficial reuses of coal ash. According to a survey report by the American Coal Ash Association, 60 percent of coal ash that was produced in 2021 was recycled. Primarily, coal ash has been used as a substitute for cement in manufacturing concrete, but CCRs have also been used to replace mined gypsum in the production of wallboard or drywall. Cement and concrete producers are shown on the map by type (cement, concrete, or ready mix). This data was supplied by Southern Company for Alabama and Georgia, and data for Tennessee is from the Southeast Cement Promotion Association.|
|Industrial Sites: The outlined circles in green indicate industrial sites in the three-state region, all of which have been certified through the respective states as business-ready and are from each state’s economic development agency. These industrial parks represent a significant subset of industrial sites available in the states, with the certifications implying that the sites have essential infrastructure to support fast-track development of business locations. These industrial parks have the potential to support advanced separation processes and industrial applications relevant to REEs.|
Who will be impacted by a domestic REE supply chain?
|Automotive industry: The map also demonstrates the electric vehicle ecosystem for the region by showing the location of facilities that manufacture electric vehicles (EV) and batteries for electric vehicles. These points (which are distinguished by stars on the map) demonstrate the current and potential demand for REEs as inputs for batteries and electric vehicles. The location and name of EV manufacturers were provided by the Department of Economic and Community Development in each state. Clicking on a specific manufacturer will display more detailed product information (e.g., electric trucks and SUVs, electric vehicle batteries, lithium-ion battery recycler, etc.).|
|Disadvantaged communities: The region also has one of the highest concentrations of disadvantaged communities (DACs) in the country. A regional REE supply chain from coal and coal wastes could be a source of economic growth for these communities or exacerbate the health and economic disparities facing these communities. The darker shaded areas across counties identify disadvantaged communities, which are from the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality’s Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool. Using census tract level data, which is a smaller unit of geography than counties, and a variety of publicly available datasets, a census tract is identified as disadvantaged if it meets thresholds in at least one of the tool’s burden categories and is above the threshold for an associated socioeconomic burden. Clicking within a census tract displays which burden categories (i.e., energy, climate change, legacy pollution, transportation, water and wastewater, health, housing, and workforce development) are present for a given census tract and the total number of categories that exceeded the threshold criteria.|
Acknowledgment: “This material is based upon work supported by the Department of Energy under Award Number (s) DE-FE0032045.”
Disclaimer: “This report was prepared as an account of work sponsored by an agency of the United States Government. Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, makes any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of any information, apparatus, product, or process disclosed, or represents that its use would not infringe privately owned rights. Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process, or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply its endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof. The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the United States Government or any agency thereof. “