Government Bankrolls Initial Efforts to Extract Rare Earths From Coal Waste

The Department of Energy is funding coal research that could help yield metals of critical military and strategic importance by 2020, but to do so must meet strict regulations and face entrenched Chinese competition

The day may come when a coal miner processes waste and overburden to commercially produce rare earth elements (REEs) for domestic and foreign markets. If the government, a handful of academics, and some dedicated companies have anything to do with it, that day may arrive within a half-decade. Meanwhile, high in the Mohave desert, an idled open-pit mine stands testament to a different future. A researcher of the Molycorp Mountain Pass REEs mine bankruptcy says that government involvement in REEs extraction from coal amounts to little more than a political stunt, some well-meaning theater to benefit beleaguered energy sector players that once contributed to political campaigns. Both camps, however, acknowledge that if REEs can be economically produced from coal, then the black rock will suddenly be doing more than lighting the night. It might save America from a massive power grab by the totalitarian Chinese.

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The Titans of Texas

Two Wirtgen surface miners load coal and lignite in south Texas

A 4200 Surface Miner (SM) extracts sub-bituminous coal at North American Coal’s Eagle Pass mine in Texas near the Mexican border town of Piedras Negras, in Coahuila State. Raw coal is then transported over the border by train to a multi-unit power plant in Coahuila. Meanwhile, at another open cast mine in Texas, another 4200 SM is extracting lignite just as economically.

The two surface miners — the largest models in Wirtgen’s product range — went into operation in the last two years and are extracting low-sulfur coal and lignite, operating 24/7.

The 4200 SM is 6.53 meters (m) high and has an operating weight of 204,300 kilograms (kg) (225 tons). It is powered by a 1,521-horsepower (hp) diesel engine. When cutting soft material, such as coal, limestone or gypsum, the 4200 SM cuts down to a depth of 830 millimeters (mm) using a 4,200-mm-wide milling drum and operating in an up-cut direction.

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Improved Safety and Productivity Through Advanced Shearer Automation

Tunnel Ridge operators embrace the benefits of automated longwall mining

One of the most productive U.S. longwall mines, Alliance Resource Partners’ Tunnel Ridge mine, operates in northern West Virginia. Initially developed in 2009, they began longwall mining in May 2012, so it’s a relatively new longwall mine. It’s one of Alliance’s eight active mining operations, stretching from southern Illinois to Maryland.

Altogether, Tunnel Rudge has 9,400 acres of Pittsburgh No. 8 coal in Ohio County, West Virginia and Washington County, Pennsylvania. The seam height ranges from 78 inches to 92 inches. The operation has a reserve life of more than 25 years operating one longwall and three continuous miner development units.

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Conveyor Cleaners Control Carryback

Several systems prevent coal spillage with quick and safe maintenance programs

Cleaners are an essential accessory for conveyor systems. Today, most manufacturers provide at least two types of conveyor belt cleaners, a primary (or precleaner) and a secondary cleaner in addition to many specialty type cleaners. These systems are used to control or eliminate the problems associated with coal spillage and carryback. Spillage, plain and simple, is a loss of saleable product that must be rehandled.

Allowing coal to accumulate is a safety concern, which can also lead to citations from regulators. Carryback is a primary source of spillage that can build up over time causing belt idlers and pulleys to wear and in a worst scenario could become a fire hazard. Carryback can also create an artificial crown on the return side of the conveyor leading to alignment issues. In general, carryback and spillage are signs of an unsafe workplace.

Conveyor cleaners need to be regularly maintained to work properly. Safety is important in maintenance considerations as well as reducing the amount of downtime associated with the maintenance program. After all, the conveyors serve as the production arteries, clearing coal from the face, and downtime on a mainline conveyor usually idles the entire operation.

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Conventional Power Stations Become More Flexible and Safe

Power producers are increasingly faced with the need to respond to fluctuating amounts of competitive sources being fed into the grid. For them to be able to do so, technical changes must be implemented in the operation of large-scale existing power stations. The change to “single-mill” operation at a power station demonstrates that even older power plants can be operated at low partial loads.

Last December demonstrated the degree of flexibility that is possible in the operation of conventional power stations today. A storm front caused the wind farms in northern Germany to feed excessive amounts of electricity into the grid. As a consequence, the power output of many conventional power stations had to be reduced by up to 40%. Through these measures, conventional power stations provide the level of flexibility required to ensure permanent load balancing. And, they have been doing so with great success. But how are these changes realized in practice? And what legal requirements must be observed in terms of licensing and approval?

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Diesel Update: New Engine Platforms and Updates Aim for Higher Versatility, Lower TCO

High-horsepower engine sales are stuck in the slow lane, but suppliers are adding new services and performance improvements to pave the way for future fleet expansion opportunities

Like an audience holding its collective breath while a performer prolongs a difficult note at the end of a song, mining-industry suppliers probably won’t take a deep breath until they hear a higher note of interest from mine owners in placing bigger orders for new production equipment.

In today’s business climate, hard rock producers are largely focusing on reducing operational costs, paring future project plans to an absolute minimum and preserving/extending the useful life of their current mobile equipment assets. One of the consequences of this focus is that trucks and other equipment are in some cases sitting idle — or on their way to an auction site — at mines around the world, and large fleet orders are few and far between. Although some commodity prices showed signs of recovery over the past year, any surge in large fleet purchases is probably still over the horizon for most mining original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).

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