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Health, Science & Environment

Coal resources near Uinta Basin could be used for electronics and renewable energy products

Stock photo of an underground mine shaft.
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University of Utah researchers are studying coal and other mineral deposits in the Uinta Basin area. These resources could be used for high-tech products in the future.

Coal has historically been an important resource and economic driver in northeastern Utah. Now, researchers at the University of Utah are looking into alternative uses of it, as well as other deposits of critical minerals near the Uinta Basin.

They are hoping to find and transform raw resources into materials that can be used in electronics and renewable energy products. Lauren Birgenheier, an associate professor in the Geology and Geophysics Department at the U, said they’re looking into coal resources as well as other non-fuel elements.

“Societally, we're sort of moving from an age where we're burning a lot of fossil fuels into potentially this new age of energy use that's less fossil fuel intensive,” said Birgenheier, who’s leading the geology portion of the project. “So one of the possibilities in the coals of Utah is that they may carry other resources that are important for our energy transition.”

The $1.5 million project is being funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. It’s part of a nationwide effort to produce critical materials in coal and power plant communities, so the country won’t be as reliant on foreign imports of rare earth elements.

“China’s near monopoly over rare earth metals makes the rest of the world dependent on them,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-UT, said in a press release about the grants. “With this funding, Utah will continue to play a vital role in [the] United States’ production of rare earth metals and critical minerals, which will help rebuild our supply chain and decrease our dependence on China.”

It’s still early on in the project — researchers are starting out by looking at concentrations of materials in the region — but project leader Michael Free said it has potential to transform parts of the state’s economy.

“[The project could] offer Utah a little bit more diversity in terms of what we offer as far as the production and manufacturing industry,” Free, a professor at the U, said. “We might [also] produce a variety of different products that would go out of state.”

He said he hopes the Biden administration continues to fund this project as they potentially move to developing the resources in the future.

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