University of Wyoming has spun out Wyomics to commercialise an ionic liquid product for extracting valuable materials including rare earth elements from coal and fly ash resources.

University of Wyoming has formally announced a US-based coal processing technology spinout, Wyomics, tasked with devising a clean approach to exploiting coal resources.

Wyomics will look to develop ionic liquids capable of extracting the so-called rare earth elements (REE) – metallic chemicals used as a component of many technological devices – from coal deposits and fly ash.

The ionic liquid would dissolve the coal without the addition of acid or corrosives, allowing miners to elicit from the byproduct REEs as well as secondary valuable materials such as carbon fibre. As such, the technology could spare the need to burn coal as an energy feedstock, reducing harmful fumes discharged into the atmosphere.

Caleb Hill, an assistant professor of chemistry at University of Wyoming, co-founded Wyomics together with his wife, Kristin Di Bona, a former postdoctoral researcher who is the spinout’s CEO, and Robin Rogers, a research professor at University of Alabama.

Gabriela Gurau, CEO of ionic liquids developer 525 Solutions, which has provided support to Wyomics previously, also helped found the business.

Wyomics’ proposition could reinforce business for Wyoming’s coal miners at a time when the industry faces pressure from the potential mothballing of local coal-fired power plants.

Di Bona estimated the western coal basin – which contains the state’s resources – possesses more than 6 million tons in REE reserves.

Hill said: “What we are trying to establish, as part of a new focus for that entire industry, is to use coal not as an energy feedstock, but as a material feedstock.

“If you can intelligently dissolve it and separate the valuable components that are in there – and there are many – and recycle the ionic liquids, then you do not have to burn it. That option is less attractive than just utilising what you have there as material.”