Followers of ARPN are well aware that we have been calling out policy makers and other stakeholders for their inaction when it comes to working towards the development of a coherent, forward-looking and comprehensive mineral resource strategy – and we frequently point to missed opportunities to work towards this goal.
While we stand by our criticism, there have also been some positive developments in recent years, largely brought about by the ongoing revolution in materials science, and over the next few weeks, we will be highlighting some of these ”Materials Science Profiles of Progress” on our blog. Call it our attempt at positive reinforcement.
The most recent development we’d like to feature in this context comes via the Critical Materials Institute (CMI), a Department of Energy research hub led by Ames National Laboratory and a team of research partners which strives ”to develop solutions across the materials lifecycle as well as reduce the impact of supply chain disruptions and price fluctuations associated with these valuable resources.”
Tied into the overall CMI effort, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have discovered a new method to recover Rare Earth Elements (REEs) using bioengineered bacteria.
According to the Lab’s own announcement,
”[m]any recent studies have looked at the use of biomass for adsorption of REEs. However, REE adsorption by bioengineered systems has been scarcely documented, and rarely tested with complex natural feedstocks.
But in the new research, the LLNL team recovered rare earth elements from low-grade feedstock (raw material supplied to a machine or processing plant) using engineered bacteria.”
Said Yongqin Jiao, one of the team’s lead researchers:
”Non-traditional REE resources, such as mine tailings, geothermal brines and coal byproducts, are abundant and offer a potential means to diversify the REE supply chain. However, no current technology exists that is capable of economic extraction of rare earths from them, which creates a big challenge and an opportunity.
Our results demonstrate the technical and economic feasibility of coupling bioengineering with biosorption for REE extraction from low-grade feedstocks.”
ARPN followers know about the importance of Rare Earth Elements, which, while graced with obscure-sounding names — our favorite is Dysprosium, derived from the Greek dysprositos, “hard to get” — are becoming increasingly indispensable components of 21st century gadgetry and high-tech industrial applications, as well as green energy and defense applications. With the United States’ import reliance for REEs having climbed back to 100% (after a recent brief but temporary reduction) and with more than 90 percent of all global supply coming from China, the supply issue has become ever-more pressing.
While the bio-recovery effort is certainly no panacea, it represents a commendable step towards reducing our overall mineral resource dependencies – and bears testimony to the ways in which materials science is transforming the way in which we use and obtain metals and minerals.