The extraction of rare earths is a very expensive process, having dramatic consequences for the planet (degradation, impacts on water quality, etc.). Currently, China controls 95% of the World production of these minerals widely used in the field of new technologies and electronics. The development of new methods of sustainable recycling from waste and environmentally friendly is a major challenge for manufacturers. German scientist were able to extract rare earth form industrial waste thanks to micro-algae. That could be a major step in saving the future of our lovely electronics devices such as the iPhone.
Researchers at the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg (FAU, Bavaria), gathered around Professor Buchholz, have recently developed an environmentally friendly process for extracting rare earth elements from water industrial waste from mining. Experiments have observed that metal ions in solution grip to the microalgae surface. They tried then to develop a metal recovery process of economic and ecological purposes, focusing mainly on rare earths. This process is based on a geo-bio-technological approach for the preservation of mineral deposits. Unlike bacteria used for some methods for extracting metals, microalgae generate lower production costs and do not require special culture conditions. Micro algae will over concentrate rare earth ions and the big challenge is then to extract the metal from the dry biomass. Researchers are now working on this critical step.
Bringing biotechnology into this field is not a piece a cake. During my studies, I worked for two years on a project called Bio2R where we tried to improve the recycling process through biotechnology. One key step is the concentration of rare earth, which are used in very low amount in electronic devices. This step is today performed chemically with the use of a lot of solvents. We thought we could solve this major issue by using adsorption properties of bacterias, especially Bacillus subtillis. This idea was confirmed by our discussions with major research institute BRGM but turning this scientifical concept into an industrial process is more than challenging.
This first result could open the way to a new biotech revolution in the rare earth sector and could break the Chinese monopoly and so the Rare earth conflict.