Penn State Researchers Suggest Bacteria Could Ease Rare Earths Mining

Rare earth metal mining and processing is incredibly complex. Rare earths rarely occur in large concentrations, instead arising in scattered deposits across the crust. Furthermore, they are often deposited alongside radioactive elements, including thorium and uranium, making it extremely expensive to pull them from the earth and safely separate them from their radioactive companions.

This process is so difficult that only one country, China, has the expertise and technology to process rare earth metals such as neodymium, cerium and yttrium in bulk.

Mining and processing rare earth metals also has a variety of negative environmental effects that most countries aren’t willing to experience.

However, given the role rare earth metals play in crucial industries such as technology and national defense, finding ways to end China’s dominance over the rare earth segment is critical. Penn State researchers have discovered a new technique of separating rare earth metals that could make rare earth mining easier, more efficient and environmentally friendly. This technique leverages a bacterial protein that has the ability to distinguish between heavier and lighter rare earth elements.

By studying how a certain protein derived from English oak buds pairs up with another unit of itself or chooses to stay a single unit when bound to specific rare earths, the research team figured out a way of quickly and efficiently separating rare earth elements from each other.  Furthermore, they found a way to do this in room-temperature conditions, creating a technique that could potentially revolutionize how the most important minerals in our modern technological economy are mined.

Penn State associate professor of chemistry and lead study author Joseph Cotruvo Jr. explains that while rare earth elements are actually relatively abundant in the earth’s crust, they are spread out over extremely wide areas in low concentrations. Whether the metals are mined from the ground or recycled from old devices, Contruvo says, the separation is the trickiest part of the process. Current separation methods usually involve massive amounts of chemicals, such asphosphonates and kerosene, and require hundreds of steps to create a pure rare earth element.

The team engineered a bacteria that could differentiate between separate rare earth elements faster and more efficiently than humans currently can. These bacteria are more than 100 million times better at binding to rare earth elements and are also capable of distinguishing between different rare earth elements, although not as well.

Penn State has filed a patent based on its work with the bacteria, and the research team is scaling up its efforts with the goal of ultimately commercializing the tool.

In the meantime, enterprises such as Ucore Rare Metals Inc. (TSX.V: UCU) (OTCQX: UURAF) are also working to address the skyrocketing need for rare earths around the world.

NOTE TO INVESTORS: The latest news and updates relating to Ucore Rare Metals Inc. (TSX.V: UCU) (OTCQX: UURAF) are available in the company’s newsroom at http://ibn.fm/UURAF

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