SoS RARE: Sustainable Development of Nd and HREE deposits

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


Rare earth elements (REE) are the headline of the critical metals security of supply agenda. All the REE were defined as critical by the European Union in 2010, and in subsequent analysis in 2014. Similar projects in the UK and USA have highlighted 'heavy' REE (HREE - europium through to lutetium) as the metals most likely to be at risk of supply disruption and in short supply in the near future. The REE are ubiquitous within modern technologies, including computers and low energy lighting, energy storage devices, large wind turbines and smart materials, making their supply vital to UK society. The challenge is to develop new environmentally friendly and economically viable, neodymium (Nd) and HREE deposits so that use of REE in new and green technologies can continue to expand.
The principal aims of this project are to understand the mobility and concentration of Nd and HREE in natural systems and to investigate new processes that will lower the environmental impact of REE extraction and recovery.
By concentrating on the critical REE, the research will be wide ranging in the deposits and processing techniques considered. It gives NERC and the UK a world-leading research consortium on critical REE, concentrating on deposit types identified in the catalyst phase as most likely to have low environmental impact, and on research that bridges the two goals of the SoS programme.
The project brings together two groups from the preceding catalyst projects (GEM-CRE, MM-FREE) to form a new interdisciplinary team, including the UK's leading experts in REE geology and metallurgy, together with materials science, high/low temperature fluid geochemistry, computational simulation/mineral physics, geomicrobiology and bioprocessing. The team brings substantial background IP and the key skills required. The research responds to the needs of industry partners and involves substantive international collaboration as well as a wider international and UK network across the REE value chain.
The work programme has two strands. The first centres on conventional deposits, which comprise all of the REE mines outside China and the majority of active exploration and development projects. The aim is to make a step change in the understanding of the mobility of REE in these natural deposits via mineralogical analysis, experiments and computational simulation. Then, based on this research, the aim is to optimise the most relevant extraction methods. The second strand looks to the future to develop a sustainable new method of REE extraction. The focus will be the ion adsorption deposits, which could be exploited with the lowest environmental impact of any of the main ore types using a well-controlled in-situ leaching operation.

Impact will be immediate through our industry partners engaged in REE exploration and development projects, who will gain improved deposit models and better and more efficient, and therefore more environmentally friendly, extraction techniques. There will be wider benefits for researchers in other international teams and companies as we publish our results. Security of REE supply is a major international issue and the challenges tackled in this research will be relevant to practically all REE deposits. Despite the UK not having world class REE deposits itself, the economy is reliant on REE (e.g. the functional materials and devices industry is worth ~£3 Bn p.a.) and therefore the UK must lead research into the extraction process. Manufacturers who use REE will also benefit from the research by receiving up to date information on prospects for future Nd and HREE supply. This will help plan their longer term product development, as well as shorter term purchasing strategy. Likewise, the results will be useful to inform national and European level policy and to interest, entertain and educate the wider community about the natural characters and importance of the REE.

Planned Impact

SoS RARE research will have an immediate economic impact by improving the prospects for the security of supply of neodymium (Nd) and the key heavy rare earth elements (HREE). The proposal has engaged six core industry partners involved in the exploration and development of new REE mines who will benefit immediately by introduction of our new exploration models and improved techniques for mineral extraction. Processing of REE raw materials is currently a major bottle neck in the value chain, and development of better methods will have an immediate impact on REE supply concerns. This will make projects more economically viable and environmentally friendly, helping to ensure a more stable supply. The four consultant company partners will gain key expertise and experience in exploration and processing which they will spread out into the wider REE mining and processing industries.
The unstable supply and cost of REE remains a major issue for manufacturers that make up a substantial part of the UK economy. A more secure supply chain will allow these manufacturers to better plan their short and long term product development. The research team will provide information on primary supplies, the likely development of future mines and how the supply chain will develop.
REE supply is a global concern. The project will have a global reach, through the industry partners involved (based in and working in the UK, Greenland, Malawi, Namibia, Spain, Canada and Australia), the core research collaborators in Germany, USA, Canada, Brazil and South Africa and wider international network links to Japan, France, and Madagascar. Diversity of supply is the key. This research proposal will place the UK as a centre in REE expertise and at the forefront of critical metals development.
The critical metals issue is requiring changes in UK Government and European Union policy, including increased support for research ion primary supplies, recycling of existing metal stocks and substitution. The impact of this research on the prospects for low environmental impact extraction of REE, diversity/security of supply and responsible sourcing will be directly relevant to future policy. The 'race' to engineer REE out of new technologies will be unnecessary and many new applications could be explored. Therefore major impact will occur at the policy level as the research guides the decision making in research funding and legislation for REE.
Few people had even heard of 'rare earths' until the issue of China restricting supply reached the news headlines in 2010, yet this family of elements are ubiquitous in digital and green technologies, from the slimmest mobile phones to giant wind turbines. We will exploit the realisation among the general public of the importance of REE towards their modern high technology life-style and demonstrate the importance of REE chemistry and geology. The REE are extremely interesting and ideal for creative and educational outputs to entertain and inform wider non-technical audiences. Encouraging the public, including school students, to learn more about REE in nature is a key part of our outreach programme.
Description Together with the SoS RARE team from Brighton, we visited a potential ion-adsorption deposit in Madagascar, investigated the geology, and collected samples for further research. Our field and follow-up work showed that the primary controls on REE mineralisation were related to bedrock geology and mineralogy - this will be reported in more detail by the Brighton team. At BGS, using the samples from Madagascar, we tested the potential for the fungus Aspergillus to release rare earth elements via the production of organic acids, either directly or by the production of lixiviant. The leaching efficiency was similar to that of the more standard technique for this type of deposit - ammonium sulphate salt leaching. Due to the currently higher costs of raw ingredients to produce microbial lixiviant and the requirement for greater resources in terms of time and microbiological experts, a change in policy would be the most likely driver to adopt this type of leaching on a wider scale. We also tested microbial leaching for the extraction of REE from bauxites, which demonstrated that a large proportion of the REE were associated with acid soluble phases, and could be released by inorganic, or microbially produced organic acids. REE were also released from slower dissolving phases which was enhanced by presence of Acidithiobacillus ferrooxidans, a commonly used biomining microorganism.
Exploitation Route The overall results of Work Package 2, on ion adsorption deposits, from the Brighton and BGS teams, will give a good overview of the controls on ion adsorption deposit genesis and of the most suitable leaching methods. We expect these to be used by those in the industry considering development of ion adsorption deposits.
Sectors Environment,Other

Description Students into Work Grant
Amount £2,486 (GBP)
Funding ID Investigating the potential of methylotrophs for recovery of rare earth elements 
Organisation Society for Applied Microbiology 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2017 
End 08/2017
Title Sample collection from Ampasindava Peninsula, Madagascar 
Description In the autumn of 2016 we visited our natural laboratory in the Ampasindava Peninsula, Madagascar, to build on a reconnaissance visit the previous year. The two visits have together led to the collection of a representative and well-characterised sample suite for the protoliths and the weathered sections of an ion adsorption-type rare earth element deposit in this area. The samples will be stored in the National Geological Repository. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2016 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact In due course, these samples are expected to underpin a leap forward in our understanding of ion adsorption deposits 
Description SoS RARE partnership with UIT 
Organisation Umwelt- und Ingenieurtechnik GmbH
Country Germany 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution The main focus of this collaboration is through a joint PhD studentship (Alex Crawford) which is being supervised by Barbara Palumbo-Roe of the BGS team. UIT colleagues held a workshop in Dresden in September 2017, with the theme ''Microbial effects in leaching operations with focus on in-situ recovery (ISR)' and this was attended by Barbara Palumbo-Roe, Simon Gregory, and Megan Barnett of the BGS team.
Collaborator Contribution The partners at UIT are co-supervising and co-hosting the PhD studentship described above, focussing on In-Situ Recovery of rare earth elements. They also hosted a workshop as described in the section above.
Impact Conference on European Rare Earth Resources ERES 2017, 28-31 May 2017 Santorini, Greece, Oral presentation by Alex Crawford : THERMODYNAMICS OF EXCHANGE IN ION ADSORPTION TYPE RARE EARTH ORE
Start Year 2016
Description Development of project website 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact WE have developed the website for SoS RARE which is available at Web stats show that in the first 9 months of the project, this website was viewed by over 5000 visitors from across the globe.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015,2016
Description Involvement in SoS Minerals meeting at the House of Commons 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Megan Barnett from the BGS research team for SoS RARE attended a meeting organised by the SoS Minerals programme at the House of Commons, hosted by the Across Party Parliamentary Group on International Mining.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Lunchtime lecture at the Department of Geology, Trinity College Dublin 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact I gave a lunchtime lecture at Trinity College Dublin, which has subsequently led to other requests to give presentations on SoS RARE work
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Panel discussion at Resourcing Future Generations, Vancouver 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact A panel discussion, arranged by SoS RARE and the Canadian Rare Earth Element Network, held at the Resourcing Future Generations conference in Vancouver 2018. The panel discussed priority actions for securing sustainable sources of critical metals for a low-carbon future. This has allowed us as a consortium to develop ideas for how to best ensure impact into the future.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Seminar at Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact I presented a seminar in the Department of Earth Sciences in Cambridge to an audience from the Department and other associated institutions. This led to engagement with various students, including a group of MBA students who made use of SoS RARE information in a project they were working on.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018