Mineral-Microbe interaction role in concentration and Fractionation of Rare Earth Elements (MM-FREE)

Lead Research Organisation: NERC British Geological Survey
Department Name: Minerals & Waste

Abstract

The increased need for new Rare Earth Element (REE) resources, to meet the growing demand from new "green" technologies, particularly heavy Rare Earth Elements (HREEs), and efficient resource processing has stimulated much research in recent years. Microbes can play a role in the accumulation, mobilisation and fractionation of REEs and other metals. However, this role is not fully understood in relation to the REE exploitation life-cycle - specifically, bioleaching, biosorption and biomineralisation of REEs in the context of: (1) REE recovery from low grade ores; and (2) the impact of REE release (together with other elements harmful to health) during mining on the environment and on human health.
These bio-geochemical processes are fundamental to optimising REE recovery from low grade ore deposits using biotechnologies, where microbial biocatalysis technologies are regarded as the most promising eco-friendly and efficient technologies for low-grade deposits.
Furthermore, although the potential threats to ecology and human health from radionuclides associated with REEs are known, there are knowledge gaps which reduce confidence in environmental assessments of the impacts of REE mining and processing. These gaps include: interactions of REEs with other harmful elements; the resulting speciation, mobility and dispersion during processing; exposure levels; and the toxicological effects on aquatic and terrestrial organisms, and human health.

An evaluation of the fundamental science is therefore required to quantitatively describe the role of biological processes and controlling geochemical factors in the REE mining, processing, use and "end-of-life" disposal life-cycle.
The aim of the proposed work is to address these key knowledge gaps and develop a research strategy. This will build a mechanistic understanding of the critical bio-geochemical controls on REE behaviours and fractionation at low temperatures, from atomic- to field- scale; provide process quantification through mathematical modelling.
The complexity of natural and engineered (in ore-processing) REE fractionation and enrichment mechanisms will be considered. The proposed approach is robust and will ensure the delivery of critical information and quantitative descriptions which address the various phases of REE life-cycle.

The project brings together a multidisciplinary team with expertise in the required areas needed to deliver this catalyst grant. These include: geomicrobiology and molecular science of cell-mineral interactions, geology, mineralogy and petrography, environmental mining impact and medical geology, supported by extensive laboratory expertise and facilities to investigate the accumulation and mobility of REEs in weathering and sedimentary diagenetic environments. This catalyst grant will provide the necessary consortium building between unique research teams and the mining and health industry to ensure the development of a research programme which will deliver new knowledge for maximum impact for technology. The resulting full proposal will have a strong science-led framework. This will (1) help design biotechnology processes for efficient, low-energy exploitation of REE resources and (2) develop an understanding of impacts of REE exploitation on the environment and human health so that appropriate mitigation techniques can be developed.

Planned Impact

This 9-month catalyst Grant project will create an interdisciplinary team and a working group with industry partners and researchers to refine and prepare the outline research strategy and develop a full strategy for the follow-on research project that is appropriate to the needs of the mining industry, government and wider society, addressing the sustainable use of natural resources.
In the full Grant, understanding of the mechanisms by which microorganisms affect the dissolution, concentration and fractionation of REEs - with emphasis on unconventional or low grade REE deposits, will be of immediate interest to - the mining industry, with the potential to be translated into processing operations; - to the government and society by obtaining REEs from REEs resources which are not currently exploited because they are economically unfeasible and by informing processing technologies that reduce risk to the environment and human health. The gained knowledge on the biogeochemical controls on the REE dispersion during ore processing will provide vital information to underpin the decision making processes with respect to human health and ecological risk assessment.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description The delivery of a proof of concept on the combination of theoretical calculations and experimentation on bio-geochemical processes as a useful approach for biomining efficiency and environmental impact mitigation of mining of Rare earth ore deposits.
Exploitation Route The catalyst grant has succeeded to move to the full grant phase: the full grant's aim of understanding the mechanisms by which microorganisms affect the dissolution, concentration and fractionation of Rare Earth Elements (REE) - with emphasis on unconventional or low grade deposits, will be of immediate interest to - the mining industry, with the potential to be translated into processing operations; - to the government and society by obtaining REEs from REEs resources which are not currently exploited because they are economically unfeasible and by informing processing technologies that reduce risk to the environment and human health. The gained knowledge on the biogeochemical controls on the REE dispersion during ore processing will provide vital information to underpin the decision making processes with respect to human health and ecological risk assessment.
Sectors Electronics,Energy,Environment

 
Description As a result of this catalyst grant, the full NERC SOS RARE project has been steered towards impact from the very beginning of project development; with impact partners providing continuous guidance to maximise the impact of new knowledge, skills, process technology and modelling tools during the project
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Electronics,Energy,Environment,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology,Other
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Economic

 
Description BGS University funding initiative
Amount £500 (GBP)
Organisation British Geological Survey 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2015 
End 10/2015
 
Description SoS Mineral Resources Research Grant
Amount £411,147 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/M01116X/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2015 
End 03/2019
 
Description Jochen Petersen - University of Cape Town 
Organisation University of Cape Town
Country South Africa 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have invited Dr Petersen to a workshop at the British Geological Survey, Nottingham, on Thursday 21st - Friday 22nd November 2013, including 18 national and international experts from academia, industry, government and mineral resource/environmental consultancy, to discuss the research priorities from an industry/stakeholders viewpoint to devise a strategy for building geomicrobial processes into a real opportunity for mineral extraction.
Collaborator Contribution The partner has contributed with his knowledge and research experience on "heap biomining" to prepare a "proof of concept" for building geomicrobial processes into mining of rare earth ores.
Impact Dr Petersen is project partner of a recently submitted NERC proposal.
Start Year 2013
 
Description Michael Haschke, UIT-gmbh; 
Organisation UIT-GmbH, Dresden, Germany
Country Germany 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution We have contributed with a letter of intent for collaboration as international partner of UIT Dresden for the German BMBF R&D initiative "r4 - Innovative Technologies for Resource Efficiency - Research for the Provision of Raw Materials of Strategic Economic Importance"
Collaborator Contribution Contributed to project workshop to share expertise on "the role of Mineral-Fluid-Microbe interactions on REE mobilisation and fractionation at low temperature". Contributed to new research proposal formulation.
Impact UIT-GmbH Dresden is project partner of a following grant proposal submitted to NERC. They have offered to support a PhD project.
Start Year 2013