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Brian Westenhaus

Brian Westenhaus

Brian is the editor of the popular energy technology site New Energy and Fuel. The site’s mission is to inform, stimulate, amuse and abuse the…

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Groundbreaking Research Promises Greener Rare Earth Element Purification

  • Scientists at Cornell University have identified a bacteria that can bind to rare earth elements, potentially replacing harmful chemical processing with a more sustainable method called biosorption.
  • The researchers believe this groundbreaking discovery could make the purification of rare earth elements cleaner and more scalable, providing a steady supply for clean energy infrastructure and defense applications.
  • The team plans on creating a pilot-scale purification system by 2028, offering a greener alternative to current practices that rely heavily on organic solvents and harsh chemicals.
Rare Earths

Cornell University scientists have characterized the genome of a metal-loving bacteria with an affinity for rare earth elements. The research paves the way towards replacing the harsh chemical processing of these elements with a benign practice called biosorption.

Rare earth elements are critical materials in electric cars, wind turbines and smartphones. Today, retrieving these metals from raw ore requires processing with acids and solvents. But a new technology, envisioned by the scientists and powered by a microbe, could make processing rare earth elements cleaner and scalable – helping provide a steady U.S. supply for clean energy infrastructure and defense applications.

The research paper, “Genomic characterization of rare earth binding by Shewanella oneidensis,” has been published in Scientific Reports.

Senior author Buz Barstow, assistant professor of biological and environmental engineering said, “The problem with the current methods of rare earth element purification is that they rely heavily on organic solvents and harsh chemicals. These methods are costly and environmentally damaging. Here we have a green alternative that uses microbes to selectively adsorb and purify rare earth elements, eliminating the need for harmful chemicals. We’re making the purification process greener.”

The microbe selectively adsorbs – or clings – to these rare earth elements, making it an ideal candidate to carry out an eco-friendly purification procedure.

Generally, S. oneidensis prefers consuming the f-block elements residing in the sixth row of the periodic table, known as the lanthanides. Specifically, the microbe favors europium.

Characterizing the S. oneidensis’s genome allows scientists to tweak its preference for processing the other rare earth elements.

This work has the potential to make processing rare earths cleaner and scalable, said lead author Sean Medin, a doctoral student in Barstow’s lab. “Currently all the purification of rare earth elements is done abroad, due to stringent environmental regulations and high infrastructure costs of building a separations plant,” he noted. “Our process would make environmentally harmful solvents unnecessary.

“Our process potentially would be significantly less land- and capital-intensive to build,” Medin added, “as our separations could be done with repeated enrichment through columns full of immobilized bacteria instead of mixer-settler plants that are miles long.”

The group anticipates creating a pilot-scale purification system by 2028.

***

Communist China’s monopoly of rare earth production has been, is now and for the known future a serious risk to both security and economics in almost all of the world’s nations. That this is allowed to continue is a disgrace across many nations whose politicians can’t be bothered to put citizen’s physical and economic security first and foremost. The media’s ignorance of it both as a topic and in the facts is equally damning.

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That might make your humble writer’s views pretty clear. Let’s hope that smart investors flood this team with capital to firm up and prototype this technology as soon as possible.

By Brian Westenhaus via New Energy and Fuel

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