Electrokinetic Mining Enables Greener Extraction of Rare Earths

As beneficial as mining has been to the development of human civilization, the impact it has had on the environment is devastating. Mineral extraction over the centuries has at times contributed to the contamination of local streams and wetlands, deforestation, soil erosion, contamination and alteration. The global mining industry is estimated to produce roughly 4% to 7% of the worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.

With the environmental impacts of industries such as mining becoming clearer by the day, there has been increased interest in mining processes that consume less energy and have a smaller environmental impact. Researchers from the Guangzhou Institute of Biochemistry in China have come up with one such method, devising a technique called electrokinetic mining (EKM) that allows miners to extract rare earth metals from weathering crusts in a significantly greener and more efficient manner.

The novel technique involves exerting a voltage on both the bottom and top of the ion-adsorption rare earth deposits (IADs), generating an electric field that accelerates water and REE migration toward the cathode.

Heavy rare earth metals (HREE) such as yttrium, terbium, holmium, erbium and lutetium are extremely rare but play a significant role in critical technologies, including clean energy. The ion-adsorption deposits that occur within weathering crusts provide more than 95% of the world’s total HREE demand.

These metals are most commonly mined using ammonium-salt-based leaching techniques that have low recovery efficiency and cause significant damage to the environment. As such, miners are generally barred from adopting these techniques, which increases the metals’ scarcity and threatens to cause disruptions to the already strained supply chain.

Electrokinetic mining would decrease the use of leaching agents by more than 80%, reduce metallic impurities in obtained rare earth metals (REE) by more than 70% and increase efficiency by more than 90%. If this technique is deployed in mass, it could significantly reduce the environmental impact of HREE metal mining and make the process much more efficient than it currently is.

Results from bench-scale experiments carried out by the researchers show that the EKM technique achieved an REE recovery efficiency rate that was 2.6 times higher than the rate achieved in ammonium leaching techniques. Overall, the scientists’ experiments revealed that the EKM technique needed less treatment time and had a higher recovery efficiency compared to the ammonium-salt-based leaching techniques that are used to mine HREEs.

When the scientists applied the novel electrokinetic mining technique to an actual IAD, they found that it increased REE recovery efficiency by more than 90% in 264 hours.

It would be interesting to learn what extraction companies such as Hecla Mining Company (NYSE: HL) think about the economies of deploying this electrokinetic approach to mining at scale.

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