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Materials Science Profiles of Progress: CMI Public-Private Partnership Studies New Ways to Capture Gateway Metals and Critical Co-Products

As part of our latest feature series “Materials Science Profiles of Progress,” in the context of which we highlight positive steps towards the development of the comprehensive mineral resource strategy our country is so sorely lacking, we’re zeroing in on a promising public private partnership that recently celebrated its first birthday.

In October of last year, the Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Institute (CMI)  announced it would join forces with global mining and minerals company Rio Tinto to study new ways to capture Gateway Metals and Co-products that are increasingly becoming indispensable in clean power manufacturing.

As Ames Lab described the project last year,

“the new initiative aims to ensure that the United States fully leverages domestic mineral and metal resources necessary for global leadership in clean energy manufacturing.

The Rio Tinto-CMI research partnership will combine Rio Tinto’s operational expertise with CMI’s research capabilities, materials science expertise and computing power.  Focused on the efficient extraction of critical materials from the copper smelting process, the research will have three core work-streams:  

1.            Improving recovery rates of critical minerals and metals (rhenium, selenium, tellurium, scandium, etc.) from samples sourced from Rio Tinto’s operating Kennecott Copper Mine in Utah and the Resolution Copper project currently under regulatory review and permitting in Arizona.

2.            Exploring potential for increasing recovery rates of rare minerals and metals through processing waste tailings.

3.            Examining process improvements that would facilitate the blending of processed electronic waste (‘e-waste’) with copper concentrates to substantially increase the recovery of valuable metals such as gold, copper, silver, platinum, lithium and rare earths present in spent cellphones, computers and solar panels.”

CMI’s collaborations with private sector companies have already proven to be valuable tools in the effort to alleviate supply risks for critical raw materials:

According to a GAO report released last year, as of May 1, 2016 CMI “research projects had already resulted in 42 invention disclosures, 17 patent applications, and 1 licensed technology.” Moreover, two recent CMI technologies developed in the context of ongoing public-private partnerships have been named 2017 R&D 100 Award finalists. The award is presented annually “to the top 100 scientific innovations as selected by independent panel of more than 50 judges representing R&D leaders in a variety of fields.”

As those who have followed ARPN’s “Through the Gateway” informational campaign will know, while demand for Co-Product Metals is increasing, the United States not only has a significant degree of import dependency for many of them, but also for the respective Gateway Metal – all of which has implications for both the United States’ competitiveness and national security.

Against this backdrop, CMI’s research partnership with Rio Tinto is a promising endeavor, tying into the research hub’s overall mandate to address our nation’s critical mineral needs.