The behaviour of rare earth elements from south african coal fly ash during enrichment processes: Wet, magnetic separation and zeolitisation

Mero Lee Ursula Cornelius, Alechine Emmanuel Ameh, Chuks Paul Eze, Olanrewaju Fatoba, Asel Sartbaeva, Leslie Felicia Petrik

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Citations (SciVal)


Rare earth elements (REEs) are essential raw materials in a variety of industries including clean energy technologies such as electric vehicles and wind turbines. This places an ever-increasing demand on global rare earth element production. Coal fly ash (CFA) possesses appreciable levels of REEs. CFA, a waste by-product of coal combustion, is therefore a readily available source of REEs that does not require mining. CFA valorisation to zeolites has been achieved via various synthesis pathways. This study aimed to evaluate one such pathway by monitoring how REEs partition during CFA processing by the wet, magnetic separation process and zeolitisation. South African CFA was subjected to wet, magnetic separation and subsequent zeolitisation of the nonmagnetic fraction (NMF); solid products were characterised by XRD, SEM, XRF and LA-ICP-MS. The wet, magnetic separation process resulted in the partitioning of a specific set of transition metals (such as Fe, Mn, Cr, V, Ni, Zn, Cu, Co and Mo) into the magnetic fraction (MF) of CFA, while REEs partitioned into the NMF with a total REE content of 530.2 ppm; thus, the matrix elements of CFA were extracted with ease. Zeolitisation resulted in a solid zeolite product (hydroxysodalite) with a total REE content of 537.6 ppm. The process of zeolitisation also resulted in the selective enrichment of Ce (259.1 ppm) into the solid zeolite product (hydroxysodalite), while other REEs were largely partitioned into the liquid phase. CFA valorisation by wet, magnetic separation and zeolitisation therefore allowed for the partitioning of REEs into various extraction products while recovering the matrix elements of CFA such as Fe, Si and Al. The findings of this study highlight the geopolitical importance of REEs in terms of the development of alternative processes for REE recovery from waste and alternative sources, which may potentially give countries that employ and develop the technology a key advantage in the production of REEs for the global market.

Original languageEnglish
Article number950
Issue number9
Early online date31 Aug 2021
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2021


  • Coal combustion products
  • Coal fly ash
  • Magnetic separation
  • Rare earth elements
  • Zeolitisation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geotechnical Engineering and Engineering Geology
  • Geology


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